Monsters & Gender: Part 2 (Folding History Into Literature and Monster-Making)


For many fans of Horror, there is such a thing as looking too deeply at a work and drawing conclusions that seem more like overthinking things or wild-eyed free-association. And it does take some of the “fun” out of it. However, to intentionally not-look at subtext is to deny the genre its Literary bones. And while talking about women’s issues in the context of monsters may be a turn-off to some, it simply has to be done in the same way a mountain has to be climbed: because it’s there.

To be clear, overlaying something like Feminist Theory onto Horror is not about turning a bunch of angry women with pitchforks loose on polite society; it is not an attempt to malign the male gender. But it is meant to call significant problems to the attention of the reader or movie-goer and generate a response. This is what is meant by motere – the ability to move the audience into action…by creating empathy if not understanding.

Yet when we bring gender into the subtext of Horror, we often find resistance. It often suggested that such discussions are beneath Literary Horror by using the same language used in the arguments made by early Critics that women’s writing was about “women’s issues” and men’s writing was about “global or universal” (and therefore “Literary”) issues. But women are part of the world and the universe. It is simply that “theirs” are not “lofty” issues because men do not see them as such – instead they are down and dirty issues, issues about the drudgery of daily life and death and poverty and abuse.

Men, it would appear, prefer to think in terms of World Domination, power plays, and subterfuge. Yet while many fans of fiction and Horror fiction enjoy the monster that seeks to destroy the world and the hero who rises from the ranks to save us all with something nerdy, most of us are more intimately familiar with smaller, more insidious and localized Horrors. Most of us are looking for ways to get the better of our bullies, foil our personal enemies, to rise above our own limitations. World domination for the rest of us remains the exclusive territory of comic book heroes and video game upstarts…which means that many of us are open to exploring what the presence of female monsters may actually mean.

 And to do this, we have to do what Horror does: recognize that Horror reflects historical events and our gut reactions to those events.

If Horror Is Always About Sex (It Is), Then It Is Always About Gender

For a long time (and for what seems like a lifetime for those who grew up with Horror during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s) the face of Horror was defined by that Hollywood summer blockbuster where young, nubile girls frolicked through serial killers and haunted mansions in nightgowns. The sex-connection was pretty blatantly obvious, but the gender connection – until Jamie Lee Curtis introduced us to the concept of the Final Girl in Halloween – seemed a bit less recognizable.

Yet suddenly here was a reason girls could like a good Horror movie: we could all of us be Final Girls. And even as the messaging remained subverted (that “power and strength are not  [exclusively] male qualities, and that conformity is not only undesirable in a teenager, but a quality that could get him or her killed” (Muir 246)) a seed for the next generation of Horror fans and writers was planted.

For girls, this opened the door to acknowledging their own intimate connection to Horror – and even expressed the invitation to explore it – to expect it…to look for it.

But here again we must look at how girls are raised – to conform, to never-question the authority of men. We go to these movies and read these books, but we lie to ourselves and claim that we are infatuated with fact of the monster… that we just like being scared or startled or surprised. In reality, something else is drawing us back and drawing us in while we not-notice that the monster is female for a reason…

Hidden in the folds of monstrosity is the promise of justice, if not revenge.

This is one reason those accused of being monstrous can set aside umbrage and instead smile wickedly at the anticipation of an enemy’s fear. In our hour of need, at the moment of humiliation and defeat, the belief that monsters can rise and inflict justice on the sword-point of rage and indignation is cathartic. It allows the oppressed to survive, crouched in their own imaginations, wielding the belief that the required balance of nature will ensure their turn in the process of justice… monsters represent hope.

In monster-laced rhetoric, the marginalized can reimagine power – even if it is temporary, it will be terrible and emotionally freeing…a lesson repeated in action-adventure revenge-fantasies like Rambo and The Terminator…In Zombie-fests like The Walking Dead and movies like The Ring…

It just might be significant, then, that a man and a woman sitting in a movie theater watching Jurassic Park will see entirely different movies. So will those from different races or cultures. Yet for a brief moment we seem to be united in our terror. But are we really?

A man might look at the line that “all of the dinosaurs in the park are female” and accept it as the scientific reason given: so that the monsters cannot reproduce without the consent of man.

Yet for women in the audience… did a bell just ring? How often do we hear women’s demands to keep male-dominated religion and government out of our wombs?

All of the dinosaurs are female…

All of the monsters are female…

Reproduction is a monstrous act that must be controlled by men lest men be destroyed by it…

Women are here to destroy the world… whether justified or not. And mankind is the target of their bloodthirsty fury. Because…you know how women are…

Jurassic Park is just the most obvious of this angst, this battle between the sexes and the annoyance of one group of humanity versus the grievances of another. In fact, having all of the dinosaurs being female is itself a commentary on the greatest mystery of humanity – reproduction (and man’s desire to control it). Indeed, women throughout history have been assigned all manner of supernatural powers in the “seduction” of men – an irresistible supernatural kind of power equated to a kind of rape – where the godlike ability to create life without the consent or “knowledge” of innocent men can ruin patriarchal destiny. Women are seductresses, makers of the monstrous, emitters of things born in blood, an act suggestive of bodily discharge and disease.

And yet through this horrible gauntlet of blood and pain women survive… like any Horror movie monster, like every Final Girl, a woman rises from the offal and distaste of men to wreck the ambitions of those same men. The only hope of containment is total domination – from the ability to reproduce, to the isolation of monsters on “islands” where they are separated from their natural “herds”… Breeding for temperament is paramount. So are electrified fences and men with large guns.

(Cigar, anyone?)

(Or perhaps a Supreme Court Justice?)

Well let’s just go there. For the sake of understanding the way history and Literature intertwine, for the sake of building better Horror, let’s look at these two monsters we all know and love: the Jurassic Park Dinosaur and the Alien – the first of which came from published fiction, the second of which started as a screenplay…

Shoot Her! (Yes, All The Monsters On The Island Are Female – and What About the Traitor-to-her-Sex-and-Species Day-Saving T-Rex at The End?)

There is an opening scene in Jurassic Park where the monster fights back, grabbing one of its tormentors and dragging the body into its crate where it begins to devour him.

“Shoot her!” demands the head zookeeper. “Shoot her!”

Why do we in the audience sit back and decide to “wait and see”? Why do we assume the monster deserves it? And was there even the slightest flinch when you realized the monster was female?

We can call it the powerful peer pressure of the crowd – the same one that keeps us from responding immediately when we witness something happening we know is wrong but feel helpless to stop. It never occurs to us that we have been taught to feel that way – taught to second guess ourselves in favor of “authority” figures, in favor of the mob. 

But another part if it is realizing that if we react, we will be separated from the herd: we will be accused, and be exposed as the next potential victim. Freezing and showing no emotion or even laughing is a conditioned response to being bullied. It’s about survival. 

So it is a natural extension of our complacency that we would fail to “feel” anything when Horror monsters are feminized.

“Equal rights,” proclaim the boys triumphantly. But this is anything but… it is a continuation of the emotional assault on women’s rights.

Yet there is also a minimization at work here: the primary subtext in Jurassic Park is not about women, but about humanity’s hubris wielding technology – a retelling of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun… So while women are sitting there absorbing the impact of the words “shoot her!” we are being distracted by the glamour of humanity’s technological godhood.

Any messaging about women and reproductive rights is sublimated, because mankind has just proven we don’t really need women to reproduce – just smart men with money and science.

Shooting the rebellious dinosaur disallowed to breed is simply enforcing the established rules.

Remember the conversation with scientist Henry Wu:

“Actually they can’t breed in the wild. Population control is one of our security precautions. There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.

Dr. Ian Malcolm : How do you know they can’t breed?

Henry Wu : Well, because all the animals in Jurassic Park are female. We’ve engineered them that way.”

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107290/characters/nm0000703

Here – as in Alien – we are seeing the omniscient presence of the Company… that unnamed patriarchal invention disguised as “society” where everyone is expected to do as told, where existence depends on the value of exploitation and the ability to exercise containment…

Jurassic Park is not just about reconstituting dinosaurs, it is about denying the natural right of reproduction – something Alien underscores in bold lettering.

If the Alien franchise does nothing else, it reminds us that not only are working class people simple fodder in the machinery of making the exclusive wealthy and powerful few even richer and more powerful, but that the ability of women to subvert the plan by the act of reproduction demands the tightest of societal control. Could we stop there?

We could. But we shouldn’t. Horror always goes deep… And here (if one cares to look), we can see statements being made about the time the original films were being made and the stories written – times when the political environment was roiling with the battle over women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights…when science was replacing religion and religion was fighting back, when Big Business was stuffing us all into anonymous cubicles and invading every aspect of our private lives. When 1984 seemed like more than a passing fancy…

 Of course we can ignore that, grab some popcorn and be satisfied. But the success of Alien had a lot more to do with resonance that it did with good filmmaking. It had to do with change…and the fear it inspired…

We can, of course, point to Final Girls in Horror as proof that things are changing in Horror and society, but just how much are they really?

When the most iconic Final Girl – Ripley from the Alien franchise is only equally matched when she battles the alien female egg-layer, what is that really saying? That the Company can ruin her life, but only she can defeat the universe-plundering she-creature? That only a female can truly, finally defeat another female? And isn’t it at least interesting that our battles with other females in Real Life always cause us to resort to the same name-calling, the same need to just shoot her that males resort to? So why do we applaud the manifestation of the “cat fight”? Why do we want the establishment to shoot her for us?

Is it because (while we are toying with the subliminal) that we also are picking up on something else: on our own precarious political situations? Are monsters like these speaking to something even deeper? Are we afraid of the consequences of the changes we seek?

Nested within the Alien franchise is the battle over reproductive rights. Who exactly will get to control whether or not Ripley gives birth and to what she will give birth? The Company? Power Brokers in society such as the military? Scientists? The Monster itself?

Maybe worse…fellow women? Why is it that most women are “taken down” in Real Life by other patriarchy-rule-following women? By the (Handmaid’s Tale) Aunt Lydias of our world?

How often have we found patriarchal rules “enforced” by women we trusted? Women we expected to know about Real Life circumstance? To empathize with rape? To shelter against the violence of men? How often have they told us how happy we should be living under subjugation? How grateful? How we invited our own misfortunes like rape or assault if we do not conform? Didn’t you have a word for those women?

We have all been there. We have all said it. We have called other women a “female dog”… And we have meant it.

Nothing is worse than infighting, in the helpless anger that flows directly from hearing scripted dialogue long preached to hold you down falling from the lips of your own kind. It becomes a battle to see who will be the most man-like, the most righteously angry.

Women do this all of the time – reciting to each other the patriarchal rules whose violation will surely (according to men) lead to the annihilation of everything held dear, will lead to fire and brimstone and total anarchy.

Yet what is at stake is the shattering of the veneer of “happiness” women are commanded to live under… the oppression of seeing our own bodies through men’s eyes… of being led to believe that having any feelings other than “bliss” is unnatural, subversive, or supernatural.

And then fearing that the consequences of losing sight of all the things we are told create that bliss are compounded by our faults in executing our responsibilities.

At the first glimpse of the Sandy Hook shooter, the first question was “Where was the mother?” not “Where was the father?” not “Where was the local church? The school he went to? The neighbors? The gun background check?” Where was the MOTHER…

Any woman who is not where she is supposed to be doing what she is supposed to be doing is culpable in our society, even now… And the first people we want to hear from is…other mothers –  “good” mothers, whose sons do not grab automatic weapons and shoot other children.

Clearly the shooter’s mother was at the very least negligent. Her son was “evil.” Perhaps they were…odd… loners… outsiders… certainly not like the rest of us…

This is why all of the animals on the island are female. Females are not like the rest of us/males… women are from Venus. Or should be. But if they fail, if they are aberrations of the species, they should be eliminated – for the good (and safety) of society.

“Fixing” Our Monster Problem

When anything happens within the orbit of a woman, for good or ill, it is her fault. And maybe that is the true source behind Ripley’s venom… being sick of tripping over the feet extended everywhere she needs to walk.

We have a long way to go in “fixing” our monster problem, because we have a long way to go in making everyone see why there is a problem. And no doubt until we do there will be female monsters in Horror.

IS it coincidence that Women’s Rights were on the forefront of conversation and thought during the 1970s when the Alien franchise was born, or that (according to Poole): “Numerous films in the 1970s joined Alien in playing with the frightening potentialities of female biology and the politics of reproduction”?

Being a teenager in those times, I can tell you the environment felt anything but “safe” as the alleged adults in the room had increasingly venomous conversations about women’s bodies and the state of the women’s minds. Up for discussion were such mortifying topics as whether or not a woman could pilot an aircraft and think logically in a war-scenario if she was having her menstrual cycle (and if female presence represented a dangerous ‘distraction’ to men in the military), whether it was a woman’s biological imperative and true (universal) private desire  to have children and if childrearing was a natural instinct or a learned one, or if having babies was a “cure” for “female problems”, whether a woman’s mental and physical health were impacted if she did not biologically have her own children, if women were intellectually inferior in general to men (especially in the maths), or if women were lesbians if they didn’t want to marry.

There was a tremendous pressure to always “prove” your femininity, and a more-than-implied threat of what would happen if you got it “wrong.” Pregnancy and its consequences were a ghost that loomed large in young girls lives. Is it any wonder then that young girls in the theater of Alien were seeing a totally different movie on that big screen? We were living then (as now) in historic times…

Continues W. Scott Poole, “Notably Alien 3 appeared in 1992 after a series of Supreme Court rulings that allowed states to place barriers between women and abortion, including parental consent for minors and strictures against family planning clinics counseling abortion as an option.” (184) And when we really look at the politics of the moment, we see more than a movie about alien life seeking a differently framed invasion – we see something besides the cigar.

And what we see is a layer of Literary discussion about women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights. What we see is framed in Literary Critical Theory as Feminist Theory. But we also see a new Literary Critical Theory called New Historicism, and an additionally even more new theory from Film Criticism called Monster Theory… all of this designed to excavate the subtext of a story that on its surface was great fun in the movie theater…

But none of this is really “new”… We are building on the works of others – of women who wrote in the genre when writing was not considered the work of a reputable woman. Says Martin Tropp about those early ladies: “The ‘New Woman’ writers were the precursors of the suffragettes. By advocating, among other things, birth control, women in the professions, less restrictive dress, and freedom to travel unescorted, they threatened to realign the relationship between the sexes.” (160) The battle over who “gets” to control women’s bodies has been a long one, constantly poking its head out of Horror pages because no one is listening to the point of motere… And for that reason alone – that stasis of nothing changing – we can expect to see female monsters in Horror for a good while to come.

Stephen King definitely “gets” it. In so many of his works, he showcases the plight of women – never so more poignantly as revealed in his book Delores Claiborne, when the protagonist’s upper-class boss offers a truth that suffering among women is so often shared suffering:

Why then is that woman a monster? Not because she broke a human norm, but because she did a swan dive off the pedestal. We simply have not been creative in our labelling of the collateral damage and the angry women it creates.

Yet…Monster. Is that the ONLY vocabulary we all have for “disagreeable women” in our collective language arts – the very one used on the streets and in board rooms? I fully admit to being influenced by the politics of the moment. Because witnessing the acquiescence makes me question at what point do we say “enough”?

Go ahead. Look around the audience in that dark theater. Look at the faces you thought you knew… the ones you thought you could trust to have your own back.

Why are there such unchallenged, unanimous cries to “Shoot her!”?

And are we so conditioned to it, we cannot stop ourselves from nodding in assent, even if it is to not-draw notice from the predators in the room?

This brings us right back to the battle between the sexes. Any soldier can tell you that in battle dehumanizing your enemy is the best way to shut out and override any inclination to question the efficacy of what you are doing and who you are doing it for. That emotional distancing does two things: it disables any empathetic response, and it empowers the timid by creating a mob-mentality – a compliance driven by peer pressure and the fear to not go along with the group…something we see in Horror movies all of the time.

Abdicating judgment is freeing: how many atrocities have been committed by people “just following orders”? How much rationalization and compartmentalization occurs therein? How many cries to eliminate the trauma of having to make a stand on principle have been made pointless by taking up the cry to just “shoot her”?

If you are female, you should be feeling something about this – whether you agree or disagree. By all that is Horror, you should be thinking. But if all of the above is not enough to sway your opinion of yourself and your inherent rights, ponder this:

Says Natalie Wilson in her book Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21stCentury Horror: “Women are so regularly allied with the monstruous, in fact, that they are often not depicted in exaggerated form in horror texts, their mere bodies being enough to construe monstrosity.” (Wilson 182)

If that isn’t enough to make you at least think about the feminist argument, maybe you need to watch these two films again. Maybe you should think about the cost of living on a pedestal.

Because there are times when being the monster is good…

References

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed.New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1984, c1979.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, c2013.

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

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC, and London, c1990.

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

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.

Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers In The Past Have Translated Illness (Part 3: Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice)


In the example of Bram Stoker we see how a writer makes sense of a pandemic when he or she is a witness to the event. With King and Matheson, we saw how a writer imagines living through the event. But what if pandemic actually claims someone you love?

Horror has two prominent writers whose lives were touched by such a personal loss in profound and painful ways, tearing at their very souls to the point that they did not so much choose to write about it, as much as they were tormented into doing so.

Both Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice lost close family members to the unthinkable: Poe repeatedly lost the women in his life to disease – most commonly tuberculosis, a pandemic that seemed unstoppable and endless in his lifetime. And Anne Rice lost her daughter to a new kind of pandemic: the kind that goes undeclared because the contagion of it is not that of more familiar viruses and flus, but because they ravage our population as silent killers, misunderstood and curiously accepted as they pick us off one by one. With Rice, we are talking cancer – not your typical pandemic disease, but one which by its numbers seems to indicate an undeclared epidemic, one with multiple yet universal origins. But just in case you were wont to dismiss it in the face of the coronavirus, understand that no less than eight viruses have been linked to causing or contributing to the development of cancer.

 

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Poe: Masque of the Red Death… and Everything Else He Wrote

Everything that came from Edgar Allan Poe’s pen reeks of premature death, decay, and the decomposition of life – sometimes (as in the “Fall of the House of Usher”) of culture or literal ways of life. Poe was not born of privilege, nor was he ever far from experiencing the judgment of class and condemnation of his contemporaries. Born the child of two actors (not considered a reputable profession at the time) on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, “a city that later in life he would loathe” (Montague 12), his was a life of struggle and loss. Disease dogged his every ambition.

Yet we in Horror hold him particularly close, especially in the United States, because he was the first to remake Horror we knew as definitively British into something local, and organically American. He translated Horror for us, and helped us see the futility in repurposing folklore without nurturing native roots. He became the most Literary and most original of our Horror writers…and he was the one H.P. Lovecraft (the presumed Father of Modern Horror) declared to be the most influential writer for him. (Montague 172)

Historically, he strikes us as a sad, macabre figure, an addict and alcoholic whose craft with language was eloquent and lyric. Yet those works we read as twisted and carefully crafted into perfect Horror in some joyous creative act was (n reality) one writer’s response to both his own grief and the poverty that served as the machinery behind those diseases of mind and body that plagued his life. It is with Poe that we see perfectly embodied the very modern argument that poverty enables premature death, addiction, and mental anguish.

And it is also with Poe that we see something else we prefer not to believe happens even today: the very public criticism and judgment of his failings – from his personal ones to his professional ones – by the very people who should have been able to rise above their own prejudices, but who (like we do right now in modern times) chose to consider themselves his moral superiors and therefore immune from death by such disease as haunted Poe’s existence.

Tuberculosis was the pandemic of Poe’s short lifetime (1809-1849) – taking his mother when he was just a toddler, and no doubt fixing in his mind the effects of that terrible wasting disease on the human body as it steadily stole away so many of the vibrant women in his life. The effect on his poet’s mind was clearly profound – inciting fears of the presence of blood, of the imminent threat to the young and old alike, to the possibility of premature burial, and the pale, vampiric presence of his contemporaries.

Poe was poor. He was born into poverty and remained there most of his life. And he is the example of what it costs us as a society to dismiss the poor to the association that it is the result of something that they have done to themselves (i.e., failure to just “do” better, to work “harder,” to have proper “ambition”) that blocks their pathway to the right to health, and the fault or responsibility of no one else. It is during his time that we cement our modern view that the poor somehow “deserve” their fate, that the poor are “dirty” and purveyors of mental illness and disease, that there is just naturally something “wrong” with them and disease is merely nature’s unfortunate way of weeding them from the herd.

With the rise of epidemics like tuberculosis, we cemented our belief that disease is caused by improper morals and “questionable” behaviors, facilitated by immigrants and undesirables filling boats that deliver them to our pristine American shores. Alcoholism and drug abuse was rampant then as now among the impoverished (even as it was “discreetly” indulged in by the higher classes). Yet by social design we intentionally disregarded the clear connection disease and addiction made between poverty and health, length and quality of life – despite the message being trumpeted by cherished writers of the time like Charles Dickens.

In fact, we have exercised our discrimination often disguised as “precautionary” action against disease – disease being something all people fear equally, and the rich and bigoted can use to exclude Others from the American Dream. We have to look only as far as our immigration practices at Ellis Island, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty:

“From 1892 to 1924, about 12 million people from other countries arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Those in steerage were subject to health screenings by physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service. The doctors checked for trachoma, an eye disease that often led to blindness, and watched for other conditions. The process could take anywhere from three to seven hours. Female physicians conducted some of the immigrant screenings on women who were modest and not comfortable undressing before a man…About 1 in 5 arrivals required more complete assessments, and those deemed a risk were quarantined at the Ellis Island Hospital, which closed 60 years ago and recently opened for limited public tours….Nurses cared for the 1.2 million patients suffering from heart disease, measles, scarlet fever and other conditions. Those considered infectious were placed on the wards of the 450-bed Contagious Disease facilities, on the farthest island from arriving immigrants. Those with mental illness were held at the 50-bed psychiatric facility until they could be deported. About 355 babies were born at the hospital, and 3,500 people expired during their quarantine….”   http://essynursingservices.com/ellis-island-immigrant-screening-and-quarantine-is-nothing-new/

Did it pass your notice that it was steerage passengers who were subject to screening? As if the wealthy could not, would not, or were morally immune from carrying disease. Steerage was where passengers with the cheapest tickets would be kept (and that would mean simply The Poor). This was the world Poe was living in… as a poor person, an alcoholic, an addict, and one often simply thought of as “mad.” And we live in similar times now, where both the poor and immigrants are seen as the harbingers of pandemic… Do we not at times feel made a bit “mad” ourselves?

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Today we still see this “screening” happening, albeit in different ways. We denounce Others as immigrants first by anticipated moral failings (“rapists and murderers”) because being likely not-Protestant doesn’t work to scare a nation torn between agnosticism and evangelicalism. But if that fails, we resort to “dirty and diseased.” Take a peek at our current immigration policy as applied to our Southern border for proof…

We have long waged war against the poor. And it is a war we are losing as we willfully decimate the Middle Class to benefit the wealthy, disguising it as the failure of lower classes to properly educate and prepare themselves. We tuck it behind the Technology Revolution, implying when not outright saying it is related to an intelligence if not moral failing that certain people are being “left behind” and that it should never be the responsibility of successful Americans to ensure the education, health, and welfare of the poorest of Americans – especially if they are of color.  We remain tone deaf to a subtext that has begun to push to the surface. And we can see from the life of Poe and Stoker that this has been baking in our national culture for quite some time.

This same attitude held Poe down: his reputation took hit after hit, the name-calling was venomous, the professional and Literary Criticism relentless in its moral condemnations of his alcoholism, drug abuse, and “unsavory” character.

Poe fought back – sometimes lowering himself to his critics’ level, sometimes rising above in stunning Literary Critical essays of the quality that impresses today’s Critics…

He was accused of plagiarism by novelist William Gilmore Simms, and engaged in numerous professional battles resulting in libel suits and “scandalous rows” marked by fistfights and public scenes (Montague 130-131). He had “questionable” relationships with women.  Poe, caught in the web of grief and addiction, seemed unwilling if not unable to help himself. The worst was thought of him while his personal life was quite publicly ravaged by his addictions — clearly fanned by the staggering loss of women intimate to him to disease – especially tuberculosis. Poe is not, then, the best of examples as to how to turn pandemic loss into writing – but he is most certainly living proof that when Life happens to a writer of talent, magic might well be spun from the agonies that torment the grieving mind.  He was also “the first American writer to support himself entirely from the proceeds of his pen” (76 Montague)…

Poe is proof that a writer cannot turn off the words meant to define life. He is proof that even attempts to drown or mutilate the Muse will not succeed. She will, instead, haunt us until we write what we see.

That Poe saw in his poet’s mind what can be seen as vampiric women is also not so unexpected, then, because they are a natural extension of what he saw as a child and experienced as an adult (much like that which affected Bram Stoker). But they are also a natural extension of what writers of Poe’s time witnessed in the premature deaths of women, seen throughout his works like Legeia, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”… both haunted by the notions of life after death and “an emaciated, dying woman…” (Montague 59)

That constant ravaging of his life and loves by death and disease are why we have his incredible writing. Writing through his emotions his images of pale, decimated women haunt us like few others, because they are rooted in truth and genuine grief, in anger and denial, and the cruel acceptance of a life he had no control over.  “He died in a hospital, on Sunday, 7 October 1849, a sad and beleaguered end to an unhappy and harassed life. He was forty years old.” (Akroyd 190)

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Death of a Child: Anne Rice and Interview With The Vampire

Born Howard Allen O’Brien October 4, 1941 (yes, Howard) in New Orleans, Louisiana, the woman we all came to love as the author of The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice, has single-handedly reshaped the Vampire in modern Horror.

Would it surprise you to know it was because of the death of her child that all of the right questions took shape in her books to elevate a good story to a Literary one? Would it surprise you that Cancer has a root in viruses?

For many of us, cancer is not a typical “pandemic”… it does not spread by contagion. It has a “routineness,” a “familiarity” for us… an expectation of survival in percentages. For modern people, cancer is a ghostly familiar – stalking us, devouring us, yet minimized by “treatments” and our own preferred ignorance of the disease within the lottery of our lives.

Yet is has been connected to viruses in our modern research of the disease. So maybe our early human instincts to shy away from those diagnosed with cancer had some preternatural sense at play. Or maybe we were just shocked and overwhelmed by the horrors this disease can deliver – and the terrors of the first treatments we tried to defeat it.

One has only to drift back to the 1960s and 1970s to see that it is there – in those decades – that we realized how prevalent it was to the human species, how terrible, how…fatal. Because we were better at identifying it at the precise time we were environmentally enabling it… cancer felt very much like a pandemic – so much so the common person even today still has trouble really believing we can’t “catch it” from each other.

Cancer is everywhere… quietly rubbing out vast numbers of us. Our governments are silent. Our researchers…struggling in what seems like competition with every other researcher for funds to find a cure.

But for many in my generation, the most vivid memory of cancer’s emergence into our mainstream consciousness is the pure Horror of random and horrific loss.

To understand where we were during the time Anne Rice was facing her loss, movies like Sunshine, Brian’s Song, and Love Story will give you a clear picture as to where we were in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and our loss ratios.

A cancer diagnosis was so horrific, friends and family often fled. And I can tell you that even in 1997 when my mother battled cancer, her friends and family (having clear expectations of what was about to transpire from those very films and life experience) … largely evaporated… rendered emotionally incompetent to deal with her dying, fleeing like her terminal diagnosis was…contagious.

It turns out, we come by this superstition honestly.  According to an article in Healthline titled “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk” “It is estimated that viruses account for about 20 percent of cancers. And there may be more oncogenic viruses that experts aren’t aware of yet.”

Whether we sense this or simply fear it, we cannot seem to help ourselves when it comes to treating cancer like a contagious virus, and its victims become inexplicably feared.  Virus (to most lay people) means “infectious…transmittable…dangerous.” We are unwilling to believe we have such viruses resting dormant in many of our bodies as a part of simply living. We NEED – desperately – to believe we can control “catching” something as horrible as cancer. We need to believe we do NOT contract it because we were better, smarter, more faithful – and not because we were luckier. Cancer victims remind us we are living in a duck-shoot.

And here it should be said clearly that with regard to cancer-causing viruses: “Keep in mind that having an infection by an oncogenic virus doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer. It simply means you may have a higher risk than someone who’s never had the infection.”  And keep in mind that had to be said to assuage the fear the words  both “cancer” and “virus” have come to embody.

Hence, I place Anne Rice here among the more traditional pandemic writers. Rice endured the terribleness of a cancer in her child at these early times in our attempts to understand, define, and treat cancer. And with her writing we see the evisceration of a parent trying in vain to save her daughter, to navigate the roller coaster of treatment and prognosis, to bargain with God for the life of her child.

Death changes everything.

And when it takes a child the parents’ world is turned inside out no matter what the era or reason, no matter what is happening in the rest of the world. Despite the almost routine commonality of child deaths until the late twentieth century which saw the development of medicine and discoveries of vaccines (and then even more so within the developed nations where privilege takes on newer and more insidious dimensions)… the death of a child seems always wrong – inverted, out of order, unnatural…

And to any who have experienced such a loss, the profound question of “why” is perilously pushed to the forefront, dragging God and religion behind it. We start asking the deeper questions – everything from why any God would allow such a thing to happen, to what does death mean, what role does immortality play in our processing of a child’s death, and even questioning ourselves as to why we go through a stage of bargaining with God before, during and after that child’s death.

The loss of Anne Rice’s daughter to leukemia shaped almost all of her writing. She handles depictions of children, of pandemics and epidemics, of mother-daughter relationships with a delicate yet firm hand. And once the knowledge of her loss is revealed, we read her works differently… we see… we understand….

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In Rice’s most popular work Interview With The Vampire, we meet Claudia – a child Vampire whose immortality becomes its own curse. Here Rice has laid raw the quandry of every parent who has ever lost a child: what would you do to get them back? And if you got them back, how would they feel about being dragged back? Does death have a necessary purpose?

Rice tackles all of the big questions about death and religion. She does this not to prove her Literary worth, but because she is living those questions. She is asking those questions for herself.

This is why her work has authenticity. And authenticity is why we believe her Vampires, her stories… This is also why her characters ask the same questions she herself has – making them real… and dragging behind those are the other questions we initially mistake as the theme of the Vampire novels — the very real modern issues of sexuality and gender identity, of societal and cultural mores… issues we often see first because the heaviness of religious questioning opens unwelcome chasms in ourselves.

When we as readers first read Interview, we see the socio/sexual/gender issues immediately and we think “how brilliant!”… how competently she wields the Vampire trope to expound a Literary argument… Yet any reader/fan of Anne Rice will be haunted by one single character: the child vampire Claudia. She dominates. She scene-steals. And we cannot take our Literary eyes of her… There is a subtextual reason for that, but in many ways we are clueless without the detail of her personal biography. Claudia is a big red flag that there is something else, something bigger being hinted at by its screams from another room.

Here is where two things happen for Critics. Either they have to look at the author’s catalog of works to deduce the pattern of religious questioning regarding children and death, or they have to use biography to Critically fully assess the Literary values. Fans will likely read the catalog and possibly come to similar conclusions. But Critics will likely attempt to weigh and argue everything. (Again, this plays into the modern Critical debate about the use of details from an author’s life to weigh the success of their work.)

And then we as fans stumble across Rice’s biographical detail like so many Critics, and then we also see… the scales fall from our eyes… there is something much, much bigger at work in the writings of Anne Rice… necessary to sense the ghost of something much larger moving behind the obvious prose. It is not necessary to treasure Claudia, to elevate her to being a favorite character we are content to let argue subtextually the religious questions that surround the death of a child. We are content to let Claudia as a secondary character leave the questions poignantly pregnant and unanswered as they are to most of us in reality. Because these are the most unpalatable of questions. We are content, then, to distract ourselves….

Why did Rice (like Matheson and Stoker) also choose the Vampire? Which monster is more suitable to question the existence and motives of God? And how innovative to create contemplative, empathetic Vampires!

But was it artistic vision, or simply a mother’s grief?

When we know her biography, we see Rice had no real choice but to write her story the way she did. And THAT is the lesson of writing not only honestly, but writing through grief: the tale cannot be told any other way but the way it is. This means it is not so much a conscious decision about reinventing a monster in the genre – but a necessary means to tell the story that HAS to be told. That natural comingling of need and opportunity becomes genius. One can never read Anne Rice and feel that the story is contrived, because her questions are always sincere.

In her book titled Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice, Katherine Ramsland explains: “Had any vestige of Anne’s Catholic faith survived the death of her mother, her intellectual doubt, then her emotional crisis from years before, it was utterly destroyed now. The prayers of her family had been useless, empty. There was no God, or at least not one who cared. She rejected any heaven that demanded the sacrifice of a child – especially her perfect, beautiful little girl.

“Two years later she would put this loss into words through the character Louis [from Interview With The Vampire] as he said in despair:

I looked up and saw myself in a most palpable vision ascending the altar steps, opening the tiny sacrosanct tabernacle, reaching with monstrous hands for the consecrated ciborium, and taking the Body of Christ and strewing Its white wafers all over the carpet; and walking then on the sacred wafers…giving Holy Communion to the dust…God did not live in this church; these statues gave an image to nothingness…”  (Ramsland 130)

Grief, made real, begets terrible truths about our own humanity.

And we can also never see the Vampire in the same way: we have to admit that it is the perfect monster for pandemic – forcing all of the right questions to the surface, dangling our innocent and naïve understanding of what immortality is all about.

The new question is: is it the only monster that can do so? Or is there one out there we haven’t discovered yet?

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The Secret of the Best Horror Writings of Pandemic

So what can we conclude from the successes of these six authors?

Each one of them did not set out to write Literature in particular – just good Horror and good stories – and they used their knowledge of, fears of, worst imaginings of, and loss from death, disease and pandemic. For each one the weaving of genre Horror and Real Life Horror involved the supernatural…each to different effect, each with different degrees. All of them could not separate religion completely from the equation, because when humanity is faced with death on a large scale, human beings start looking for the reason in it, and the purpose of our lives if such are to be cut so unfairly short. And all of them danced with the Vampire if not the question of the presence and influence of Good and Evil itself.

The trick has been to balance the Horrors of Real Life and those Literary elements with genre tropes. We still see that struggle happening in today’s Horror, where the Horror often plays a losing role. It is difficult then, to frame reality with what so often comes to feel trite.

Yet do we not love both the monsters and the victims in all of these stories?

The very best of them allow us to read a work strictly as Horror, or as a Literary offering where Something Bigger is being addressed. We see that all-important double entendre brewing.

Did you feel the difference in the three who did it best – Bram Stoker, Poe, and Anne Rice? And did you do so because you almost felt tricked into it? You read the story, thought sincerely you were just reading a genre story of Horror, and when someone pointed out the author’s histories and the possibilities of what all was being discussed, there was an Ah-ha! Moment… one that reinforced that uncanny feeling you had when reading them.

That is how a work “becomes” Literature. It starts with the author’s personal experiences and fears…it is transformed by those fears into a mirror of Real Life whose Supernatural reflection anchors it within the Horror genre.

I say again that it is my opinion that details of the lives of authors should never be the determining factor in interpreting the work. It is, however, a long tradition of Literary Critics to examine those life-details, and a current debate within the field as to the ultimate importance in examining and analyzing a work for its place in Literature. Knowledge derived from author biographies and their intimate secrets of the lives of authors should only enhance their work for a reader or Critic. Those details should contribute to a reading of a work or an appreciation of how an author creates Literature. Those details should be inspirational to common readers and aspiring Literary writers, but knowing them “going in” can only shade and distort our expectations of the work – planting seeds the author never wanted visible, but merely sensed. 

We have to ask: did they do that without us knowing the intimate details – the story behind the story? Or did we need the biography to decipher the Literary elements? Can we savor just the genre if a reader wants to?

How successfully this is done determines the value of the work as Literature. Too much Horror and Critics may see it as a mishandled mockery of Literature, too little Horror and the genre and its fans shy away. It is a delicate balance –but a necessary one to identify if new writers never taught about Literature and what Critics do are to come to an understanding and appreciation OF Literature – and even more so if we are expected to create new Literature.

What these works show us as uneducated readers and writers (that is uneducated in the ways of Literature) is that the Supernatural has to be more than hinted at, more than a prop – it must have an integral and working role in the story.

Horror should never be mere decoration, draped around a story to wedge it into genre: it should fit naturally. It should breathe.

So if we are to write some great, potentially Literary-level Horror during and after this pandemic, the lesson is that there must be authenticity in both the story and the Horror meant to tell it.

Imbue your monsters with Life – like Anne Rice (who changed our ideas about Vampires for us forever). Imbue your monsters with reality – like Poe did (by wrenching our terrors from our imaginations and having his characters live them literally). Imbue your monsters with the power of death –  like Bram Stoker did (by letting the slow dread of creeping disease ransom our reason in our Horror of death). Imbue them with humanity — like Richard Matheson did (by drowning his protagonist in Vampires while battling the crippling Horror of human loneliness). Imbue them with cultural myth – like Stephen King did (by showing us that who we are as people determines real outcomes in times of pandemic, and that such is choice). And don’t date your work by too much name dropping and dated material that might necessitate rewrites if not later explanation –  like Dean Koontz did (by proving our ignorance of the future can cause whole new interest and eager – if not misguided – reinterpretations of our work long after we ourselves have given up on it).

Knowing these things now… won’t you re-read “classics” differently?”

And more importantly, aren’t you inspired to try to write one?

  

 

REFERENCES

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: a Life Cut Short. New York: Doubleday, c2008.

Healthline Newsletter. “8 Viruses That Can Increase Your Cancer Risk”  retrieved on 6/25/2020 from https://www.healthline.com/health/cancer-virus  

Montague, Charlotte. Edgar Allan Poe: the Strange Man Standing Deep in the Shadows. Oxford: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Ramsland, Katherine. Prism of the Night: a Biography of Anne Rice. New York: Plume, c1

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).

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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…

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Women In Horror (Sexism, Feminism & Male Preference in the Horror Genre Every Month)


(A late Women-In-Horror Month posting with apologies to regular readers: my computer died and took my originally planned post with it. This is a reconstruct… from the best of my failing memory…)

Here in the climate of #MeToo, female writers of Horror do not have far too look for a sad sisterhood.

How quickly must I apologize to male readers of this blog? How deeply must I sublimate the resentments that still haunt every writing decision I make like so many Leng Hounds?

This is how we know there is a problem: “No offense to male writers of the genre, but…”

Because here we are not talking about a casting couch. (Perhaps those of us who are writers of fiction too often seem unsexy in our sweat pants and pinned up hair, locked for long periods of time like mental patients in our writing rooms, we only “glam up” on occasion and usually by accident.) No, our personal Horror stories are more about the annoyances of #MeToo experiences in minimum wage jobs while being unceremoniously rejected by publication after publication – all (of course) touted to be the best in our genre, although we ourselves as readers may think differently.

Why, male writers might think, do we believe we still have a sexist problem in the Horror genre?

Answer: Because if an author like J.K. Rowling uses a male pseudonym (NOT a female pseudonym) to write fiction, then Houston we have a problem in publishing period. And Horror has no J.K. Rowling…

Never mind that no matter how she meant it, I found it somewhat disturbing that Rowling found it “liberating” to write under the pseudonym chosen. Because on one hand it was anonymity. But on the other, it was gender anonymity.

 

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On Being a Female Horror Writer

So here it is: I am not saying that perfectly good, perhaps even GREAT male Horror writers do not suffer unexplained rejection. (And that’s all the apology you are getting.)

I am saying that what happens with male writers in the genre – unpublished male writers – is different. Male writers are allowed to be unpublished without being shamed.

Female writers are automatically assigned to the category of not being good enough to be published – not just not having found the right publication for our work. Our bios are filled with charming cats and doting spouses. We are not likely academics or authorities in any field – at least publicly (because bragging is not ladylike). And a lot of this is our own fault. We think the way we were cultivated to think. It is unbecoming, unflattering, and kind of bitchy to show any sign of aggression (read as “competitiveness” if you are male). And for those of us born around or in the Baby Boom – well, ladies should not be offensive. And if they are, they deserve to be taken down a notch and shown their place.

And then we overthink the thinking that has been imposed on us. Women in most professions today are still not “free.” This is sooo evident in women’s writing — from creating it to judging it.

For one thing, male writers are not forced to live deep inside their heads second-guessing EVERY creative decision they make.

I just lost sleep last night wondering why I keep writing MALE protagonists. What is wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be writing female protagonists? But then if I do write female protagonists, am I narrowing my audience? Will I be assumed to be a Young Adult writer? A sensationalist writer? A writer with no market?

Should that female protagonist’s name be gender-ambiguous? What if she is TOO strong? What does it mean if she has a boyfriend? How should they interact? What if she is too aggressive or not aggressive enough?

Should I write under initials? What if they see my blog avatar and I am outted before they read my fiction? Does it matter?

Will a female editor give me more of a chance if she knows I am female or be harder on me to overcompensate because SHE is a female in the typically male dominated field of Horror?

It took me a few hours to realize I had completely lost the story I was thinking about…

This kind of mental Vietnam goes on forever for female writers in general, but especially in our genre.

One of the most powerful discoveries I have made as a writer is the one where I realize that I am a female writer…which apparently makes some sort of difference…especially in the Horror genre.

Amazingly, what I have found is that where male authors are concerned, their end-product is evaluated at face-value; for female authors, there ensues a search for subtext. For male authors, biographical details are enhancements, for females, they are excuses. To properly “dis” a male author, one simply criticizes them like one does a female author.

Before there is an all-out, knee-jerk reaction from all the men out there, let me clarify: I am not only saying that it is harder for women to find appreciation or publication…what I am saying is that for some pretty interesting and un-admitted reasons, there are always strange, invisible criteria applied to the judgment of fiction works by women. Whether we are talking publication, Literary Criticism, or “simple” editorial decisions applied in anthologies; whether we are talking education, professions, and reputations, if you are a woman writer, people in general are wont to make apologies and excuses for your choices. Everyone becomes an arm-chair psychologist and a genre expert. All of a sudden the writing of a woman is not “just a story” but a running commentary against men, against patriarchy, against society…in other words, you are attempting to be Literary.

This makes it easier to weed out women’s writing from general submissions: if a publication wants playful, inventive storytelling and you are suspected of being a guerilla Literary writer, well this story is just “not for our publication.” Suddenly you are out of your depth as a writer and nobody wants to sort it all out.

And then if you are a woman and you write Horror…well then you, my dear, are miraculously transformed into a rebel.

What kind of woman writes Horror? Is it even decent?

Curses. I bothered my pretty little head about it…

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http://popsych.org/two-fallacies-from-feminists/

It has been profoundly interesting to me to discover that because it is not “cool” to like Literature in these times, any writing that is not clearly “anti-Literary” and quasi pulp-driven is inherently subversive. Slap on a female byline, and suddenly it is obvious to everyone but yourself that you are angry, anti-establishment, and man-hating, and write boring, overly saccharine, overly wordy, overly sentimental made-for-a-limited-female-audience trash fiction.

I didn’t come to this conclusion through rejections of my own writing, nor am I saying that is why I personally find rejection with my writing (I earnestly think my writing has flaws that I do not yet know quite how to fix). I am saying that this is what I see as a female writer researching the Horror genre. This is what I read in Criticism of woman in the genre…

Sure, many male writers experience something similar when they write Horror…the difference is that historically once male authors develop a body of work, that work “lives” in reviews, criticisms, comparisons, historical perspectives, collectible comics and collectible publications which go on to have value in the collective body of genre works…if not an underground following. A great deal of women’s fiction in the genre just disappears as old magazines disintegrate or go out of business.

When one considers that in the magazine industry at the turn of the century, it is estimated that over 70% of published Horror genre writing was being done by women…is it not truly weird that not only have most of us not read those writings, but we don’t even know the names of the authors?

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Divide and Conquer

When you are a female writer of Horror, you tend to feel isolated and alone. Everywhere you look, the examples of how to write Horror “properly” or successfully are overwhelmingly male. Many like to say that this is because it is mostly men who have shaped and produced the genre.

But they would be seriously wrong. It is only that male writers have found immortality in the world of Criticism, reprints and anthologies. That has led to their constant rediscovery and intense scrutiny by genre experts while new male voices have dominated the last three decades of Horror because that particular period of the genre has focused on male-driven interests. The minute our genre became one giant slash-fest is when most of us noticed it…but the style of writing – including plotlines, dialog, the fast-moving, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners narrative, the underdog antihero – these are the contributions male writers have made of late. But only of late. We are now on a railway “spur” to nowhere…The genre needs to reinvent itself and rediscover its center

Prior to the 70’s and 80’s, the writing style was much different. It was more Literary, with heavily detailed narrative, an emphasis on suspense, and exhibited a clear evolution from earlier genre works (think Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and James). In this period and prior to it, it was women who were the foot soldiers of Horror.

That is not to devalue the contributions of men of the period – including several heavy-hitters who came from Literary channels to write the occasional tale of the supernatural. But it is to say that women were mass-producing tremendous amounts of published works, while it is largely male writers who are identified as having risen to the top of the genre.

Yet if these women’s writings were so good, why don’t we know who they are?

Sometimes this is because many Literary Critics want to see a clearly defined body of work, and many women’s “bodies” (pardon the pun) are literally ghosts of the past (ladies notice the pun). If one can’t find them, collect them, and publish them, many Critics will not bother with them. The problem is that what happened to women’s writing – including its denigration, its relegation to the pulps, the public chastisement of the female authors at the hands of many male authors and the Critics of the times – means that we can’t find whole bodies of works for many of these writers.

While we are entertained by suppositions that women “get busy” with domestic duties and diversions and are therefore historically “unreliable” in building careers in general, the truth is a bit uglier.

Historically women’s writings simply were not assigned the same value as written works of men.

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Women are expected to write for women readers. Men, on the other hand, write for us all.

This is a verifiable fact of history. One doesn’t have to be a feminist or dislike feminists to find plenty of evidence. It is just one more point of divide and conquer. If we stop and argue about that point, I would never get to my point.

Not being valued, the work of many early women writers is scattered about the many different publications of their day, most of them defunct or no longer having those issues available. No one thought to save the works, and just like today, many women were writing to pay the bills that come with the haphazard consequences of unpredictable lives dependent upon the favorable whims of men. Who knows what happened to their handwritten originals and typed manuscripts?

It is also to say that some of those works which did survive are now found in several subgenres and established Literary genres. Gothic, Gothic Romance, Suspense, Mystery, Ghost Story, Thriller, Supernatural Fiction, and straight-up Horror… No one knows where to put them: classified by genre, or by author’s body of work? (Maybe this is why I tend to shy away from re-categorizing Horror as “Weird”… it is predominantly male writers who can meet that particular defining “criteria” to the Literary Critic’s eye…and I am tired of witnessing the seemingly intentional exclusion of women writers).

Frighteningly, I’ve also noticed that not unlike today, many of those women – unlike their male counterparts – were made to pay professionally, personally, and socially for their “bad” choices…specifically the one to write genre fiction. I personally suspect that I myself have had a handful of job interviews simply because employers who found my blog or LinkedIn page wanted to know what I really looked like. (Alas, there are no tattoos, no piercings, no Gothic lips or hair. I am a boring Horror writer.) And I can tell any young female novice of the genre that the adulation of your peers will not last; it will be replaced by a thundering herd of stereotypes about people who like Horror and the kind of women that write it. Those stereotypes will not be nice and they may cost you jobs, friends, and relationships. Unlike male Horror writers who are cool, and refreshingly anti-establishment, as a female you will just be weird and as all feminists are to those who don’t like them – you will be possibly thought dangerously unbalanced. This would be amusing if it did not have tragic, real-world consequences…

But it is just further proof of what I am saying here. Regardless of how our male counterparts think we are being treated or perceived, something ugly is still going on with the reception of women’s genre fiction and the “image” of female genre writers. If it’s out there in the workaday world, and Critics grudgingly admit it, what is happening at the publishing level? Why in the few remaining Horror sections of the fewer remaining bookstores is there only one or two female authors of novels? Typically only 1-3 female authors in an anthology of 15 or more? (Happily I can state that Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran have gone a long way toward changing that trend, but why are they as women typically alone in the inclusion of more female writers in anthologies?)

In Horror, clearly we are still an unwilling part of somebody’s tasteless joke. It took me a while to “get” that, because I am proud to write Horror and proud to be genre. I don’t “get” what other people find “disturbing” about that; I see such judgments as living proof of profound Literary ignorance which certain people appear to be proud to display. I don’t see writing as frivolous, or self-indulgent, or particularly subversive and irresponsible…but as a woman who writes, this is the message being spit in my face. Over and over again… All too often at the cost of employment in a regular job.

Do male genre writers experience the same? It doesn’t seem so, or it doesn’t seem as widespread…

But neither observation surprises me, because this has been the tradition of treatment of women who write genre fiction from the beginning. It used to be the standard treatment for women who write fiction period.

“If a woman writes fiction, there is something wrong with her.” (Darn tootin’…she’s not afraid to think for herself. And in the case of Horror writers, to destroy the world one monstrosity at a time.)

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Meme Watch: Feminist Yog-Sothoth Sees All And Would Really Appreciate A Trigger Warning

The bottom line is that women writers of genre fiction have this strange uphill battle going on that we don’t remember starting. We just sat down and began to write stories for good or ill. But the fact remains that there are names missing from our canon which might well belong there but for the fact that they belong to women.

Now… one can toss around all the insults and excuses one wants about these (or any other) women writers. But if you have read women’s genre fiction especially from the late 1860’s into the 1900’s without deciding beforehand that they are man-hating feminists, you would be shocked and surprised at the quality. The ladies did more than hold their own.

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Undoing Diversion

To unearth this wealth of writing, one has to be a bit of an archeologist. You are going to have to dig. But you are also going to have to avoid stepping in steaming hot piles of …argument. Because argument is one of the tactics of those who want women’s writings to stay buried and disenfranchised. To do that, the best diversionary tactic is to pit men against women and to humiliate any woman even thinking about challenging dominant opinions. Nothing derails the truth like a wardrobe malfunction and a little name-calling.

If a woman points out that certain worthy female writers are consistently ignored, then we can just call that woman with the annoying voice a “feminist.” And bitter. And jealous. In fact, so is that darn writer she is yapping about…

For one thing, sensationalism distracts from the real issues. If a woman can be labeled a feminist, we give ourselves permission to stereotype her right into man-hating oblivion. Best of all, we don’t have to listen to what she says or justify why it’s okay to maintain the status quo. We get to stay lazy, blind and in the bubble. We don’t have to do anything and there is a crowd of people patting us on the back for agreeing with their loud selves.

We also don’t have to judge history, ancestors, or our own behavior. Women – you see – tend to write fiction that is meant to strip the flesh of pretense from the bones of reality. That kind of thing happens when by nature of your gender, you are privy to the inequalities and injustices thrust upon others…or yourself. After a while you get pissed off. Unfortunately, even now times have not changed enough for women to “talk like men” and speak freely without some sort of repercussion.

All a woman must do is allege that this is true and the Gender Wars erupt. This is how we manage to not change: we divide and conquer. We get busy making it us-against-them, throw some dirty, scandalous rumors in and – voilà! – nobody is talking about the issues anymore.

So I am not going to talk about why men should see the things women see so clearly. What I am going to do is say this about women writers:

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http://uppercasewoman.com/2011/10/24/what-feminism-means-to-me-and-proposition-26/

 

If even one of these issues raises its ugly head in a woman’s prose, she will be called a feminist, her work will be a treatise on some feminist issue, and that is just too darn lofty for the average Horror fan who just wants a good read.

But just try being a woman and not know these things intimately. Men are lucky; they don’t have to think about them. But for women, these issues shape our lives and will inevitably find their way into honest fiction because they haunt us. They dog our every step. Sometimes we even use them against each other to try and impress men.

Whether we hide behind a male viewpoint or venture out to express our own, we don’t get the same choice as a male writer to be separate from the issues – simply because even if we don’t write about them people will root around in our words until they can find some semblance of what they think is there. And if that is not enough, they will talk about our private lives as though that is the reason for our failures and insufficiencies.

Is that why men tend to be “struggling writers” and women tend to be “failed” ones?

We could argue the merits and faults of feminism with men who hate what they think is feminism, or we could preach to the choir. But who I really want to reach is the female Horror writer out there who thinks she is alone in the genre, who thinks women don’t write Horror well, who thinks women never really contributed to the history of Horror.

Like that young woman, I also want to know: why haven’t I heard these names before? Where are the reading lists that include them? Why do I have to have some forty anthologies of “classic” Horror to get a sampling of the women writers of this genre?

The answer is simple if not simply unpleasant: genre writers of the female persuasion were definitively not treated the same as male writers in the past, and because of it, many are overlooked if not lost altogether. In order to change this, we first have to see how we ourselves may be being treated and speak up. We have to stop allowing anyone to make us feel somehow deficient or inferior because we choose to write, or to write genre. We must support Literary Critics who are willing to analyze the writing of women writers, and editors who include women writers of today and yesterday. We are fortunate in having editors at the top of our genre who tend to do that now, but we must never allow ourselves to be lulled into complacence. And we must definitely never allow ourselves to be convinced that it is because of women in the genre that the genre seems to be losing prominence.

It is not about the writing or who is writing it…Horror (like all of publishing) is still battling Technology for the right to exist…

Women have important things to say, and in Horror, important ways to say it. I don’t mind noticing that I am a female genre writer. But I resent being reminded of it only to be made to feel guilty. This is 2020, isn’t it?

And yet we still see a predominance of male writers published in the genre – even though women are gaining some ground.

So for all of you novice and new Horror writers – especially women writers – I say “Hold onto your hair, fellow Horror-chicks. We write among giants.” Following is a list of books that address women writers in and around the genre, writers of the past and present. I am going to name names. And while some of these can be pricey, they are eye-opening and worth the read.

As a female writer of the genre, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you overlook this information and the glorious treasure troves of Horror fiction. If you’re going to be part of a tradition, it helps to know whereof you write…

Because some of those “men” might well have been women.

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Literary History and Criticism/Essay

Carpenter, Lynette and Wendy K. Kolmar, eds. Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, c1991.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. New York; North Point Press, c1998.

Hay, Simon. A History of the Modern British Ghost Story. New York: Palgrave McMillan, c2011.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

Nelson, Victoria. Gothika: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2012

Short Story Anthologies

Ashley, Mike. Unforgettable Ghost Stories by American Women Writers. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., c2008.

Baldick, Chris, ed. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1992.

Bleiler, Everett F., ed. A Treasury of Victorian Ghost Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1981.

Cox, Michael and R.A. Gilbert, eds. Victorian Ghost Stories: an Oxford Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, c1991.

Dalby, Richard, ed. Ghosts for Christmas. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, c1988.

Dalby, Richard, ed. The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. London; Virago Press, c2006.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan R., Robert A. Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg. 100 Ghastly Ghost Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, c1993.

Lundie, Catharine A., ed. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women 1872-1926. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, c1996.

O’Regan, Marie, ed. The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, c2012.

Salmonson, Jessica Amanda, ed. What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction. New York: The Feminist Press, c1989.

Women Authors of Note in Supernatural & Gothic Fiction

Aiken, Joan

Alcott, Louisa May

Alice Perrin

Amelia B. Edwards

Amelia B. Edwards

Antonia Fraser

Atherton, Gertrude

Austen, Jane

Austin, Mary

Baldwin, Louisa

Barbara Burford

Beecher Stowe, Harriet

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth

Broughton, Rhoda

Cather, Willa

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Cobb, Emma B.

Corelli, Marie

Crawford, F. Marion

Du Maurier, Daphne

Dunbar, Olivia Howard

Files, Gemma

Glasgow, Ellen

Hull, Helen R.

Jackson, Shirley

La Spina, Greye

Lawrence, Margery

Lee, Tanith

Lively, Penelope

Molesworth, Mary Louisa

Morton, Elizabeth

Nesbit, Edith

Oates, Joyce Carol

Oliphant, Margaret

Pangborn, Georgia Wood

Peattie, Elia W.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart

Quick, Dorothy

Radcliffe, Ann

Rendell, Ruth

Rice, Anne

Rice, Susan Andrews

Riddell, Charlotte

Salmonson, Jessica Amanda

Shelley, Mary

Sinclair, May

Spofford, Harriet Prescott

Stewart, Mary

Tuttle, Lisa

Welty, Eudora

Wharton, Edith

Wilkins Freeman Mary

Wood, Mrs. Henry

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is apparently somewhere between pride and shame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And our work shows it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might just be time to take our genre back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scary Is as Scary Does…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, according to Bayles and Orland:

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

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

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

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

Pulp is the ultimate rebellion.

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

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

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

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

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

When will our genre wake up?

When will publishers?

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

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

And it is nothing to be embarrassed by.

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?

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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.

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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?

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

Sredni Vashtar: the Beautiful Terror of My Childhood (Why You Should Know the Writings of Saki/H.H. Munro)


One of the biggest detriments to not-having your genre acknowledged as its own Literary genre early enough is the probability of certain authors and certain stories being simply…forgotten… in the rush to recognition.

In today’s world of out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking, we are at perhaps an even greater risk of losing track of what has gone before (and especially for American Horror readers, if those writers and stories are not American). Those authors and those stories hide in plain sight, often labeled as “kid’s stories” or Young Readers stories…Young Adult… They are categorized within the anonymity of broad genre labels, all too often not narrowed down to the familiar genres like Fantasy or Horror.

Instead, they are tucked into anonymous collections of other stories – those peculiar selections of odd works by established, Literary names whose proximity-by-binding is designed to “hook” young readers into the discovery process of reading and creating an undefined, unshaped hunger for Literature. Yet many of these stories – while so relevant to youth – are also so keenly relevant to their individual genres that even adults are susceptible to their magic… which means something — especially when such tales are remembered decades after the reading of them.

It is a difficult and miraculous thing for an author to create such a story – so immediately ordinary by its concept and yet so hauntingly extraordinary by its telling that its mere existence bears mention and demands acknowledgement. So why don’t we know those author’s names and their stories?

For the last five decades one such tale has haunted me, reminding me of what we all as Horror writers aspire to – that one significant story that no one ever forgets... And re-reading it as an adult changes nothing. Indeed, tucked neatly in between those half-remembered reading lists and Literature textbooks with short story collections are stories I now never hear mentioned, and I wonder if we have misplaced these authors accidentally or on purpose—because just such a one provided a story whose name and details stayed with me for over fifty years after one reading…

Sredni Vashtar, by H.H. Munro, also known as Saki.

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Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed

What is it about reading a great story for the first time, about being seven years old and having a story crouch in your imagination decades later? How exactly does the mind become the tool shed, repository of forbidden feelings and childhood resentments – shaping the imagination like moonlight shapes silhouettes in a dark room?

Surely it is because it is already there…a makeshift box for all of the sins we endure, all of the sins we imagine…

It occurs to me I had some wickedly awesome English teachers in my youth.

And I am not saying it is their fault I became a writer of Horror fiction, but it certainly helped.

It was the story that seemed to have changed everything – “Sredni Vashtar,” the first Horror story I remember reading — and having it rock my world. I also remember how it made me feel – guilty and satiated all at the same time, dissociated from my own bullied life, and vividly aware of how inadequate the class discussion afterward seemed. Did they not “get” it? I wondered. Am I the only one who sees?

I know now that every child feels that way…alone, isolated…vulnerable because we are taking the whole world into the damaged vessel of ourselves trying to make sense of who we are while so many are trying to force us into shapes we do not recognize. Listening to that class discussion, I checked out. I missed the first real opportunity to understand how to read critically because I was already obsessed. I was already a Horror fan, and simply did not know it…

Because in my mind Sredni Vashtar lived…where there are bullies, such things happen.

Horror today has been neatly packed into a restrictive set of monsters and tropes. It is as though we are afraid that if we venture too far out of genre conventions, we lose ourselves. We avoid gray areas, and sneer at labeling certain tales as childish things. Yet that is exactly how the genre grows – by invading other gardens, casting spores among the resident flowers, and riding strange blooms as parasites until the new buds open blood red and spill out a new species of life…

We seem bound and determined to narrow definitions instead of expanding them, locking out certain families of Horror. Some of this comes as we prepare to establish our genre within the field Literary Criticism. But some of it also seems to rise from nefarious fears that we are losing…something…perhaps identity…perhaps control.

In the mad dash to the finish line, we have grabbed our tomes of Lovecraft and Poe and tossed Stephen King into our box of must-saves-from-the-purging-fire of the Tech Revolution. But we don’t even know the names of those who came in between, let alone that they simply have to be saved.

Hector Hugh Munro is one such author… One whose work reaches beyond childish things and right into adulthood, because with stories like “Sredni Vashtar” he has reminded us that Horror starts early – that it is those very emotions we learn to control and subvert as children that make us who we are, and feeds the monsters of our genre.

H.H. Munro is also another potential foundational author of the Horror genre, writing under the pseudonym Saki. “He adopted the name in 1900, and it’s believed to have been taken from a character from the works of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.” (Reimann)

Another British author (what a surprise!) Munro has been described as a “Scottish writer and journalist whose stories depict the Edwardian social scene with a flippant wit and power of fantastic invention used both to satirize social pretension, unkindness, and stupidity and to create an atmosphere of horror…” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The son of an officer in the Burmese police, Munro was born in Burma (what is now Myanmar) in 1870. He and his sister were returned to England and the care of a “strict, puritanical” grandmother and aunts after the untimely death of their mother when he was two years old; “He later took revenge on their strictness and lack of understanding by portraying tyrannical aunts in many of his stories about children.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

As an adult he served as a police officer in India, and was posted to Burma before contracting malaria which forced his return to England in 1895, and which is alleged to have led him to become a writer. Munro “never married and may have been gay, but homosexuality was a crime in Britain during Munro’s lifetime and the decorum of the times would have required him to keep that part of his life secreted away… ” During World War I, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ancre (November 14, 1916) by a German sniper. (Summary; Raimann)

Other sources seem to confirm Munro’s “secret.” And they also reveal a very familiar “theme” for white male writers of the time: racism and a touch of misogyny. “Munro was certainly wary of the growing Jewish presence in England, and he ridiculed the mounting women’s suffrage movement. Still, however chauvinistic his politics were, Munro knew something about marginalization. As a homosexual in Edwardian England, in which one risked being tried for gross indecency, Munro chose to be secretive to the point of repression for his entire life.” (Reimann)

So why is a man so much a cookie-cutter of our genre’s representation of his period — one where Horror had begun to seriously flower — no longer worthy of mention?

The mind boggles. But it also begins to have suspicions…And Sredni Vashtar howls from the shed — because Munro’s works have indeed held their own against so many bigger names of his time (Wilde, Kipling, Wodehouse)… Why don’t we know him?

“As Christopher Hitchens wrote, Munro ‘is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later.’” (Reimann) Yet those in this country who read him as children are growing older…and young people don’t seem to speak his name…

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And all the while, those of us who read him cannot forget him. Perhaps that has to do with the relevance of his writing, with the collective memory of every childhood.

“Sredni Vashtar” is iconic. He is archetype made manifest, made justice…

From the outset of “Sredni Vashtar” we are faced with the problem of an unfortunate child becoming a horrible child. ..an evil child who delights in the vanquishing of his perceived enemies with an unbridled relish that resonates within every child who has endured the bullying of adults or peers.

Yet we cannot stop there because Munro did not. In fact, “Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance…” (Summary)

Truth can be a very scary thing – especially truths about how we really, bluntly feel – especially when we are children…and believe in magical thinking.

Yet growing up, we cannot escape the raw conjuring of that original thought of revenge; we remember it vividly – the need for it, the primal hunger for it, the knowledge of how it should taste.

We are confronted with the possibility that we ourselves will have to admit we have also had these fantasies – at least once as children, and now even as adults.

Of course it is unsettling; this is what psychology is all about.

But it is also what Horror is all about.

We discover the most terrifying of Horrors in the most unobtrusive of places…the “normal” places… those we would never suspect of having rich and lethal depths teeming with cries for justice that become twisted and mutilated by our own desperation…

Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.

What does bullying do to us—always that perpetual child eternally wounded by words and actions that bombarded us in our most vulnerable moments, when no one came to our rescue and our souls cried out for vengeance.

Do we not carry those images and fantasies into adulthood? Who among us has not fed a coworker to a monster in the quiet depths of a lonely cubicle? Who among us has not cried out its name?

When we look for the value of Literary elements, we are confronted with them in Munro’s works. But we are also confronted with Horror. And when that Horror transcends childish things, we know it is no longer “just” Young Adult or Young Reader material.

In fact, I have had a hard time considering Munro a children’s author at all. I suppose it depends on how deep one really wants to go… But when we talk about children’s Literature – about the purpose of it – should we not also be talking about the importance and relevance of genre?

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The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales

We often worry about what our children might see or read – forgetting that they do in fact see everything…

But what we also tend to forget is what scary stories did for us as kids. Scary stories brought out into the open the things that knifed us in the dark. They gave our fears images and resolution – even if such solutions were unsavory or socially unacceptable. With scary stories, we had permission to not only be afraid, but to fight back…to defeat our monsters…to win despite our insecurities and flaws.

In fiction, we get to weigh the consequences of our actions. And sometimes, our thoughts.

Fear is what I remember most about my childhood. Fear of displeasing authority, fear of divorce (since every other kid seemed to be going through it), fear of other kids, fear of math and math teachers, fear of getting lost, fears of being left, fears of being disliked by my own family (reinforced by a sister who clearly wished I had never come along), and fear of never being good enough. Life in the military made it better; where my sister dreaded every new school and every new post, I loved it. I loved the chance to start over where no one knew my embarrassing flaws which I blithely hoped each time we moved I had left in our last quarters.

Of course they came with me, messing up potential new friendships, leaving me perpetually shy and easily humiliated. Bullies found me quickly, my own sister often among them, leaving me feeling so often pummeled by adult criticisms and children’s insulting nicknames.

Until I found reading, I felt alone – horribly, vulnerably alone. But when I discovered the kind of stories that spoke to my fears, everything changed. The bullying continued, the shyness grew and the humiliations continued to roll in – but then I had a secret: I knew something of who I was. I knew that I had a shed, and Sredni Vashtar was in it.

The stories I remember most were Horror stories, ghost stories, tales of terror…strange tales of the unexpected… And they felt like they were written especially for me… It was like having a cozy grandpa reading me each one…It was like my feelings were more than okay to have.

So I devoured them. Each time a reading assignment happened, I was looking for the Horror, dismissing the ones that weren’t scary, embracing the ones that were…It’s how I became a fan of Greek Mythology (thank you, Mrs. Allison) and fairy tales (thank you, Mrs. Miller) … It’s how I tripped into history and found myself reading about the 1914 Russian Revolution, about Wounded Knee, about the Civil War…about Lizzie Borden…

Despite my immersion into art at that point in my life, books spoke to me. And I hunted them down with fervor. Stories – mostly short stories in that time before too much Young Adult – that were written by long-dead folks with wicked imaginations. Each time I read a good one, I wondered if the adults knew what they were promoting… I feared them being taken away…

But the one that dominated my passion was “Sredni Vashtar”… and I had to have it. I ordered it from my Weekly Reader book club in 1967. I believe it was 35 cents, and I got a whole book of Saki’s stories for the hefty price…

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(This was the one…exactly the one….yep…35 cents….)

Why might such a story be such an epiphany for a seven year old?

Perhaps because the only control a seven year old has is in their own minds. Perhaps because when you are seven, everyone else has power over you.

Conradin horrified me…that left to his own devices, he would devise a means of revenge that only a child could appreciate.Yet in my own way I knew Conradin; as does every child. We utilize and wield wishes then, as though they hold their own magical power…and then we are shaken when it appears that they do…even as we make new wishes…

The reading of spine-tinglers are an important rite of passage for most children. For some reason it is those maligned tales which open the vein to Literature for many of us. Perhaps reading them feels covert – like we suspect the teacher doesn’t really “get” it – not like we do as children (because it is not that we forget, but that we never really know for certain that our teachers were ever children…there always remains something shallow and possibly untrue when they say “when I was your age…”)

Spine-tinglers open so many doors…sometimes doors that lead to toolsheds…

When a writer transforms the ordinary, the real emotions which roil about shaping fantasies in our heads makes them come alive, turns them into marionettes that dance on desires that rise from the bully’s oppressive acts and exact the justice we so desperately need, that writer is a salvation…the work an epiphany. We can take the story at face value, sensing and riding the undercurrent that rises like an ocean swell to carry the imagination through decades of other Horrors…or we can learn to see what Literature is all about; we can talk in terms of evil, and child psychology, and the effects of bullying…

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We can even dive into the details of  a writer’s life… measure the effects of secrets on souls, explore and theorize about the true personal cost of speculation and rumor and innuendo of an author’s possible sexual orientation in oppressive times.

But we cannot do so without wondering if that speculation has anything to do with Munro’s absence in the light of our new day – at least in the educating of American Horror audiences. Has Munro – like Tanith Lee – been censored out of our canon-elect? And has he been buried for the same bigoted reason: the fear that reading his work will alter our children’s minds and morals?

It seems a very real and very dark possibility.

And if so, it is one that is cheating us out of important works – the kind that drive creativity in the genre.

“Sredni Vashtar” is about bullying, plain and simple. It is about childish, passionate revenge. It is about the wishes of childhood and the corruption of innocence as created by the bully, not the victim.

If we are looking at the work of censors, isn’t it time we stopped the stupidity? If we are going to elevate writers who strongly disliked women (Bram Stoker and Lovecraft) or those whose lives are marred by substance abuse (Poe and even King), why is author gender and sexual orientation such a source of ostracism? Are we really so moral a genre, so perfect a species?

I am saying we can’t afford to lose writers like H.H. Munro – especially because of any possibility of some misplaced moral judgment. We need to read him. We need to claim him. We need our future Horror Literary Critics to add his name to their lists for canon consideration because in Horror we all have Things living in our tool sheds…

As a genre built on the primal fears we all face as children, how can we ignore a writer so in tune with the social terrors of childhood? And aren’t we all of us damaged in some way by the world we live in?

Perhaps it’s time we embraced Saki because of the scars.

Sredni Vashtar demands it.

 

The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)

Novels

The Chronicles of Clovis

When William Came

 Short Stories

A Bread and Butter Miss
A Defensive Diamond

Adrian
A Holiday Task
A Matter of Sentiment
A Touch of Realism
A Young Turkish Catastrophe
Bertie’s Christmas Eve
Canossa
Clovis on Parental Responsibilities

Cousin Teresa
Cross Currents
Down Pens
Dusk
Esme
Expecting Mrs. Pentherby
Fate
Filboid Studge
Forewarned
For the Duration of the War
Fur
Gabriel-Ernest
Hermann The Irascible
Hyacinth
Judkin of the Parcels
Laura

Louis
Louise
Mark
Ministers of Grace
Morlvera
Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger
On Approval
Quail Seed
Reginald
Reginald at the Carlton
Reginald at the Theatre
Reginald in Russia
Reginald on Besetting Sins
Reginald on Christmas Presents
Reginald on House-Parties
Reginald on Tariffs
Reginald on the Academy
Reginald on Worries
Reginald’s Choir Treat
Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald’s Drama
Reginald’s Peace Poem
Reginald’s Rubaiyat
Shock Tactics
Sredni Vashtar
Tea
The Background
The Bag
The Baker’s Dozen
The Blind Spot
The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water
The Boar-Pig
The Brogue
The Bull
The Byzantine Omelette
The Chaplet
The Cobweb
The Cupboard of the Yesterdays
The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

The Dreamer
The Easter Egg
The Elk
The Feast of Nemesis
The Forbidden Buzzards
The Guests
The Hedgehog
The Hen
The Hounds of Fate
The Image of the Lost Sole
The Innocence of Reginald
The Interlopers
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
The Lost Sanjak
The Lull
The Lumber Room
The Mappined Life
The Match-Maker
The Mouse
The Music on the Hill
The Name-Day

The Occasional Garden
The Open Window
The Oversight
The Peace Offering
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Pennance
The Phantom Luncheon
The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat
The Purple of the Balkan Kings
The Quest
The Quince Tree
The Recessional
The Remoulding of Groby Lington
The Reticence of Lady Anne
The Romancers
The Saint and the Goblin
The Schartz-Metterklume Method
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope
The Seven Cream Jugs
The Seventh Pullet

The Sex That Doesn’t Shop
The Sheep
The She-Wolf
The Soul of Laploshka
The Stake
The Stalled Ox
The Stampeding of Lady Bastable
The Story of St. Vespaluus
The Storyteller
The Strategist
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Threat
The Toys of Peace
The Treasure-Ship
The Unkindest Blow
The Unrest-Cure
The Way to the Dairy
The Wolves of Cernogatz
The Yarkand Manner
Tobermory
Wratislav

 

 References

Reimann Matt. “Hector Hugo Munro: The Strange Ideology of Saki.” Dec. 18, 2015. Books Tell You Why.com. Retrieved 5/29/19 from https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/hector-hugh-munro-the-strange-ideology-of-saki

American Literature. Retrieved 5/30/19 from https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki

Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retreived 5/31/19 from from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer

“A Summary and Analysis of Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar.” Interesting Literature. Retrieved 5/26/19 from https://interestingliterature.com/2017/04/20/a-summary-and-analysis-of-sakis-sredni-vashtar/