Coercion & Conformity in Horror: When the Stakes Go Through the Heart


I have a confession to make: I stopped submitting work to Horror markets years ago.

Oddly, it wasn’t about rejection – or rather, it was, but not in the way you might think.

I stopped because just reading various submission guidelines and editorial rants made by what are supposed to be professional publications and publishers absolutely pissed me off.

And this got me thinking: just how many other Horror writers have had it with submitting their work to three-year-olds?

And if other such writers are out there, not-submitting their work, how do we really know that the true best Horror stories are being told?

How do we know which way the threads of the genre are being pulled?

c1

“This Isn’t for Us”

I can’t vouch for other English-speaking countries, but there is something insidious afoot in the United States fiction market. With the loss of so many Old and Traditional Publishing Houses, the loss of so many quality editors, so many midlist authors, and so very much print, our fiction in all genres has bottlenecked at the river Homogeny.

No one seems to know what they want (other than an author who can make a lot of people rich at the same time and as quickly as possible). No one seems able to actually use words to express real parameters, no one seems to be able to define criteria succinctly and professionally and free of insane clown tantrums.

Everywhere is the stench of a new conformity – one that suggests that the genres are dead and classification generally useless, and another one that blurs the lines of genre requirements as though the publications themselves don’t know them.

Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas of study. We are so desperate to please a Horror editor – any Horror editor – that we overlook the absence of academic expertise and allow for the belief that because someone has a title of editor, they know what they are doing.

But there is no real school for Horror editors to graduate from. There are few jobs to get on-the-job training or mentorship.

And if we are relying on our educational system to provide guidance for and the birthing of new editors (Horror editors notwithstanding), then we are living in a house of illusions. Just as with creative writers, our educational system has redirected its focus to getting graduates employed in what amounts to “vocational” jobs – graphic arts, commercial art, copywriting, technical writing, technical editing, (and sometimes) a watered down version of Journalism.

How can anyone discover the next Lovecraft or King if editors and publishers are not educated in the literal and Literary history of the genre? If starmakers can’t recognize a rip-off of Poe or appreciate the rich soil of Pulp?

Says Steven Saus in his essay “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas: Making Speculative Fiction Speculative” (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, New York: Penguin, c2014): “Over the last decade the hard bright lines of genre have disappeared. You can lay the blame on the reduction of actual physical bookstores, literary cross-genre courageousness, or the alignment of planets – but the effect is real…The labels sci-fi, horror, and fantasy have shifted and blurred so that it is difficult to tell where the lines are anymore…” (3)

Why this is may indeed be evidence of growth in storytelling ability, simultaneously arising alongside what is most probably a healthy trend toward better Craft and technique often associated with the Literary. But it may also be why New Horror doesn’t sell as well as Classic Horror.

In the editorial quest for originality and more writers who cut their genre teeth on the voluminous writings of the 1950s to the 1980’s, we have indeed seen some concepts of originality take wing – concepts that seem to lead out of genre and into the nothingness; into the massive pool of general fiction. According to Donald Maass in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling, “Today, genre-bending and blending is more the rule than the exception…” something which is contributing to what he calls “the death of genre” and the emergence of hard-to-classify authors. (11)

Much of this seems to be author-driven, according to Maass, who states “the first question I get in pitch sessions at writers’ conferences is, ‘What category am I?’ When I respond with the question, ‘Where do you think your readers will look for you in a physical bookstore?’ the answer is often a shrug. ‘I just write the stuff.’ [And] while that answer can be a cop-out, it may also express a genuine indifference to traditional category borders…” (11)

Or, it could be a cop-out.

As a writer I know I feel confused about this type of author. How could you not know?

Of course, maybe this perspective stems from my years working as a library cataloguer – where characteristics of a story suggested the place where the bulk of fans would find it, and additional subject headings would ensure a bit of cross-pollination for readers seeking new authors or writings that touched their reading preferences.

But personally, I feel it comes from loving story, and a story type – a genre. It comes from years of joyous reading in that genre, and cross-pollinating it with other genre’s stories that carried elements of my preferred genre. That is where the desire to become a writer should emerge – from the seed of what has gone before, not the desire to just write and be rich… to “just write the stuff” which screams a literary ignorance that is both shocking and disrespectful of literary tradition – let alone Horror tradition.

It makes me want to take names and not waste my time or money on writers with such a cavalier, superior attitude.

Because if a writer doesn’t care enough to know where his or her story is coming from, the motivation is all wrong. The “I wrote it, you fix it and make me a star” attitude is one I have read editors complaining about. And perhaps that has contributed to the Rant Guideline.

But there is absolutely no justification for what is clearly becoming an attempt to make writers conform to nongenre story. Out there in the Real World of Old Publishers and New Writing, there is a pressure to write to a new specification – one that makes an unpublished or under-published writer feel more like a pawn than a star.

C2

When you write Horror and read in submission guidelines that your story cannot be about vampires or wizards or “like Stephen King” yet that is exactly what is being published, you have to wonder what the heck is being solicited. And when they go further and state things like: “no serial killers, no tales about survival of child molestation, no ghost stories, no post-apocalypse…” we have begun to enter the territory of censorship – not only in what you will or will not write in order to get published, but what readers will or will not find published by traditional publishers…and therefore professionally endorsed.

While it is an admitted function of a qualified editor to contribute to the shaping of the contemporary genre, it is not their function to gatekeep what type of stories are being published – the quality and choices colored by their own preferences should be the only visible, moving parts. And that should be tempered by having many editors of many tastes.

In this not-so-brave new world of homogenizing genre so that it becomes (miraculously) “literature” we are also showing our blatant disregard for the study of Literature AND genre, as well as RESPECT for Literary Critics. We are all on the same side, even when our preferences are separated by creative divides.

Publications are arising from nowhere and everywhere. They are dropping young editors in at the helm thinking that only young people know what other young (and therefore potentially higher earners with deeper pockets) people want. They seem to think parking behinds in MFA classes is enough to build knowledgeable editors in the genres…that their presence may ensure the “elevating” of genre to the Literary. Yet anyone who researches MFA’s will find the old school mindset that allows writers not to write. To come to class if they choose (i.e., we have your money, we don’t care). They don’t have to be there. If they are not in the mood. If they cannot get inspired. BUT THEY COLLECT A DEGREE.

Seriously? THESE are the people the Establishment plans to put in charge of new writers without MFAs? If a writer is that temperamental, they need academic guidance in how to get past it, in how to subvert blocks and produce writing. How else can they know how to guide actual writers who hit rough patches while under contract?

And what do we know about their editing skills and education? Editing fiction is a long-term investment in study – both as a glorified copy and content editor, and as an expert in all that has gone before, and as a knowledgeable representative of Craft. That means there should be education in Craft specific to genre as well as Literature. I haven’t seen that on curriculums. I see teaching creative writing classes…the ABC’s not the in-depth detail of mechanics which new writers WILL BE rejected for because they haven’t mastered them…

And these are again, the new editors who hold the Golden Ticket for finding positions in traditional and nontraditional publication acquisition offices.

This should disturb you. It disturbs me…Because there is indeed a learning curve for new editors. And it is not about understanding grammar. It is about having extensive, hard-won knowledge in the area one is hired to edit.

C3

But there is also evidence that both publishers and editors in our genre are also operating on the fact of our own collective ignorance, believing that any “good” story can make a mint and do so without vetting it in the genre history because no one really reads anymore, no one really reads genre old authors, no one really reads Literature anyway, so our editors don’t need the knowledge because today’s consumers won’t be the wiser…

This is irresponsible. And it is destroying our genre – not because Horror cannot withstand an elevation to Literary styles, but because ALL GENRES have bloodlines. And without them, writers are indeed just writing “stuff.”

If there is one thing I can say in defense of having only two American editors of Horror who came from our storied, traditional past, it is that at least these ladies know the genre inside and out. They know the history and what has been done and overdone. They know good writing technique and good storytelling. They may be inclined to accept or reject based additionally on personal preferences, but they have earned the right to do so, and at least publish qualified writers in the genre – whether the rest of us like the stories or not is actually not relevant.

But it is damning when the editing stops there in our genre…when the historical tradition of Horror writing is being ignored if not denigrated everywhere else, by what appear to be unqualified editors… The kind who rant about submissions…

And writers who just “write the stuff.”

C4

Drive a Stake Through My Heart

This has really got to stop. And I think the only way it can is for Horror writers who KNOW they write Horror to take charge of their own writing. To demand or create new publications and publishing houses, to write whatever they darned well please, and to self-educate in the traditions of both the genre and Literature.

It makes me wish the Horror Writers Association was a bit more inclusive, more of a leader. And perhaps, more of a rabble-rouser, a defender of all of our genre efforts.

As it stands, they seem to represent just one more layer of posing and imposing by their membership requirements and allocation of awards – defining authoritatively just who will be who in the genre. This means they are dictating what direction they want the genre to grow in. And it is not that they don’t sometimes have good ideas. It is that genres grow in the direction of unfettered writing.

C5

We seem in this country to have put the cart before the horse. We seem determined to dictate an American style which weirdly denigrates genre by homogenizing and re-categorizing it.

It is almost as if someone is on an ego trip, secretly planning to become THE editor who makes the genre what it will be in the future…a Svengali, a magician, the power behind the throne to lead us out of the darkness…

Except we ARE the darkness. We like it in here.

As a writer I do not care if this or that publication or editor doesn’t like this or that type of writing or story. I care that those publications are held up as the only acceptable qualifiers for Horror writers to claim on their resumes.

Punishment for deviation is swift and harsh. Self-publish, or indie publish at your own risk. Publish in an “unauthorized, unapproved” publication and you have marked yourself as some kind of unqualified degenerate bent on destroying the genre.

But I can tell you I don’t “get” this tendency to maintain an exclusive club.

In my travels I have seen quite capable writers of Horror who are shut out. They have, apparently, committed some sin. And they are, however, quite good if not very promising. I can’t help but think there are indeed readers out there who would like to be reading them right now…Yet we are – all of us, readers and writers alike – separated by this wall composed of New Editors, Establishment Editors, and fewer and fewer accessible publications.

When I complain about this, Establishment editors seem to roll their eyes and list the same few publications as the solution to my “problem.” But this just proves to me that they don’t “get it.” Whether as a submitting writer or a reader, I want to walk into my book store and find three or four pulpy magazines done just for the joy of publishing Horror.

And there are consequences to not-having these types of publications.

How do we know what direction the genre is growing in if we are not reading all of the writers who write IN the genre?

I mean pulp AND Literary… Lovecraft was pulp once. So was Poe.

How can we be sure we haven’t silenced the Next Big Thing in Horror because they are now working at McDonalds for having written a story that “isn’t for us”?

How can we complain about quality when we as a genre we are doing NOTHING to ensure that writers are nurtured and trained in the art of writing – in Craft, history, and Literature, in genre? In comics, graphic novels, and pulp?

And what IS this seemingly endorsed new trend to guide writers to write for Hollywood? To create stories that are written with the rules of screenwriting so IF they are any good there won’t be too much work to repurpose novels to screenplays?

And we expect to get LITERATURE from that? Really?

Only in America.

Thank God for the British. They seem to care too much for the genre to let the poison in…

And then I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the suggestion to submit to publications that are not American. Maybe as an American writer I want to submit nationally…

Again. REALLY?

We can’t manage to have actual publications that print Horror in this country? And you are whining about the lack of diversity in the genre? About originality? Maybe we are all too busy writing to spec for the three publications that will accept our submission on a Thursday in March, for three minutes, to do something about it. Then again, maybe some of us are writing different stories. Surreptitiously. On the sly. Without permission.

C6

Maybe we WANT to write like Stephen King. Or about vampires. Or wizards.

Maybe we DON’T want censors in our heads.

One has to wonder why not only are we being told what not to write, but that such is coming with the blessings of our own Establishment.

What is the motivation here? Are they just ignorant? Or complicit?

The declassification of Horror and re-dissemination of our works and authors into other genres is nothing short of assassination of our genre.

The floating of rumors that our fan-base no longer reads Horror or buys Horror is only so true insofar as they cannot FIND Horror. Or diverse Horror. Or new Horror. Or Horror writers. Or BOOKS IN PRINT.

Then to be rejected – but with the eye-opening caveat that Horror has become like Children’s picture books , itself a category that accepts only a few new authors per year and favors established authors, classic authors, and celebrities – is beyond enraging. Not because of jealousy, but because of the knowledge that this small, exclusive club of writers does not include the bulk of new genre writing.

It doesn’t include the future of the genre…but it guarantees a certain homogenization…a funneling of creativity into pigeonholes.

How do we know what is out there? What might transform the genre next? And why the heck doesn’t someone in charge of the nurturing and protection of the genre in this country CARE?

Something terrible is happening in our genre in the United States. And you don’t get to blame unpublished writers for this one. Or the Horror fan-base, many of whom have fled to Manga, Dark Fantasy, comics, and graphic novels to fill the void. God bless them for doing so – for they are saving Horror artists in the process…

I firmly believe those of us locked out of the current system need to stick together. Whether we are struggling with Craft or toying with stories, writing in more than one genre or exclusive to Horror… we need to ensure our own place in the history of this new genesis. We need to take back our genre.

We need to reject these attempts to drive a stake through our hearts, to censure the stories we want to tell.

There is no room for Vampire killers and prima donnas not wearing nighties in Horror…

C7

References

Maass, Donald. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012.

Saus, Steven. “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas? Making Speculative Fiction Speculative.” Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Laurie Lamson, ed. New York: Penguin, c2014.

 

 

Advertisements

Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?


For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we treat them, and providing an emotionally charged platform from which to lob scary tales to haunt the young among us.

It works. Therefore, it is repeated.

But why does it work? And what in the world has the likes of Slenderman to do with Horror Literature?

Slend1

Literature is For the Formally Dressed: Bring Your Tux

Literature (some will argue) has its own formula. Yet it is in the genres that we are most likely to encounter noticeably familiar rhythms and resurrected themes. Therefore, time and again Horror writers must do battle with originality within the framework of …formula.

Genre audiences have certain expectations. And as such, this has led to what are called “conventions”… certain established rules for achieving that expected outcome. And those conventions have in turn led to an overt expectation of formula. In genre Horror the most common denominator of formula (and therein subsequent convention) tends to be derived from folk and fairy tales, and “new” fairy tales – the urban legend.

Now, formula is not always bad. Consider it to be like music notation…a kind of framework upon which all the magic happens: it is both necessary, and noticed when it is missing. However it can be more flexible than we have allowed for it, as long as changes are clearly organic and roots remain visible.

Most often, we recognize certain “melodies” in writing. These are often the side effects of a subliminally understood meter or pulse behind the words – the “beat” that gets us moving, that connects to emotions.

In writing, words can be every bit as primal as a drumbeat. And to understand the connection between what we do now and what has been done in the past, we need only look as far as fairy tales and campfire tales…urban legends…myths. These are the past tense of genre. And while they are fun and intriguing, writers must exercise caution because these are powerful and obvious patterns – we must decide if we meant to make the connection obvious, and at no time should we attempt to “trick” or “surprise” the reader with the fact of those patterns: we simply won’t succeed, and our story – no matter how capably written, will be rendered “trite” and our plot overdone.

These are our primitive instruments. And being the first things we derived to create word-music, we tend to revert to them often. Simply, we value their power – their ability to really connect into our primal memories to summon certain emotional reactions.

This is exactly what Slenderman (and all characters of his ilk) are designed to do. In Horror, we take the word-music and make it discordant, disharmonious… unsettling and uncomfortable. To do this we must know what is pleasing and soothing in order to not-do it.

Horror is not about banging on the piano keys. It is about playing something with patterned dissonance – intentionally and artistically. This is why some Horror with violence is gratuitous and cheap, but the same act in another story is powerful in a Literary way. As Horror writers we have to be aware of where the line is and make educated decisions on when we cross it and why.

A masterful handling of such details is how inventions like Slenderman got their start and manage to hang on. And on.

There are simply certain images which disturb us on a basic, primal level. Typically these images are discordant. Dissonant. Out-of-step with what we perceive as reality.

Slend2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Babadook

This makes nightmares plumb hunting grounds for such images. As biology has taught us, every animal is prey for something else. So logic follows that if one is an apex predator, what could be more terrifying than that which stalks us?

The whole Slenderman profile speaks volumes about our modern fears as well as a few primitive ones. Today in “civilized” countries such as the United States the biggest villains are the faceless persons of privilege and power – the ones who move behind the scenes and treat us like their personal puppets. Their henchmen – figures of authority including government, law enforcement, religion…

It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see those representatives – the Enforcers of our warped society – within the description of Slenderman. We even speak of such authorities in derivative terms, reducing them to what they wear (“suits” and “uniforms”) to what they do (“Pencil pushers” “thought police” and “enforcers”). We proudly declare them “faceless”…”stalkers”… “dark web”…”hidden or shadow government”… They routinely take our children, curtail our rights, manipulate our reality, garnish our wages. “The long arms of the law”…. “the tentacles of government”… “the mind control of religion”…”the opiate of the masses.”

Never mind the perception of stranger danger… the constant presence of real fears of child abduction and the disappearing of whole children and people, the constant threat of societal perversion right here in our society… We were primed for the return of the Slenderman; we simply had not named him in this country…

But there is more to this picture. Because whether it is about survivor guilt or our own personal fears of the once-again suddenly noticeable influx of Others – of immigrants and different customs, language, and religion, we have customized a very old motif to fit modern worries.

And perhaps our human attachment to guilt – collective, racial, personal – all fold into those nightmare creations to build monsters which come at us from planes of existence which we cannot have control over. Perhaps it is a sense that we deserve whatever comes to us, combined with the knowledge our own perception of things has taught us: that when entities are vengeful they often take down whatever prey is available because they cannot reach the ones most often harboring the fullest measure of responsibility.

In other words, the innocent pay most often the debts of the guilty.

Peripheral damage. Collateral damage. Accident. Tragedy.

Humanity provides all manner of words. The Horror is that it changes nothing to cast labels along with our aspersions. But it does give us permission to revel in our customized misery. No one suffers like we do…

So when we create monsters, it is important that we be willing to sacrifice characters our readers have invested some of themselves in. It is important that we remember our own fears in order to translate them to the page.

Our history in storytelling assures us that we will not have to travel far to find such figures from which to diverge. Says Martin Tropp in his book, Images of Fear: How Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918):

“The continued remodeling of popular myth is behind not only of the purpose and power of the horror tale, but also, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown us (in The Uses of Enchantment) one reason fairy tales have remained popular among generations of children…fairy tales have been shaped by their audience to reflect their wishes and fears. Certain patterns recur because the problems they echo are common to children – among them the fear of abandonment by parents, competition with siblings, the conflict between the allure of pleasures and the demands of growing up.” (7)

(I know. You are not children, you say. You are practically adults. I do know, because I was once you. In fact, only the mirror reminds me otherwise from time to time. And therein we are unavoidably linked.)

But here is the thing: as young adults, we all feel a weird pull toward the supernatural. It is a natural curiosity, typically happening when we fancy ourselves old enough to rightfully question our parents’ real authority, their religion if any, and the meaning of death.

Just like the wee children in fairy tales, we wander about in dark forests, invincible and immortal even as we know secretly that we are not. With a sense of superiority, we leave bread crumbs only to have wildlife eat them, leaving us stranded and lost. We test the things that threaten to get us if we cross the line. We buck authority, flaunt our youth. And we do it out of fear. We do it to prove we can out run those fears. Because bad things always have to happen to everyone else.

Except that they don’t. We see it right now with school shootings. With inner city crime. With war.

Continues Tropp, “Like classical or Christian mythology, stories like Frankenstein, Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thoroughly permeate our culture; you don’t need to have read the novels to have felt their power… And if myths are…the dreams of our race, then these [retold and reworked] myths have become our recurrent nightmares” the constant retelling of which “never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning.” (7)

Did you see the point where Literature and Horror collide?

Literature is all about bringing truth to the table. Fairy tales deal with raw truths about the human condition. Weave that into a tale which resonates with readers to inform about a period of time, an incident that will become history, and you are flirting with Literature. Horror in Literature.

It only makes sense that we would choose a fairy tale guy wearing a formal suit and sometimes a top hat to do the deed…

Slend3

Fairy Tales Are Not For Children

Having been surrounded by nursery rhymes and geese wearing bonnets, it is entirely possible that you have no idea about the true nature of fairy tales, or fairies for that matter. Especially in the United States, we have sugar-coated our fairy faith with Disneyesque sparkle and glitter. Happy Ever After is our mantra.

But in reality, fairy tales were never meant for charming children. They were most often meant for adults, and when offered to little ones were done so with the intent of keeping rebellions in line. They were “cautionary tales” whose violation resulted in death.

How grim is that? Very Grimm. Go in search of the original stories and you will never be the same.

Reach into Celtic Fairy traditions and you will not find nice things. Fairies of old are first and foremost supernatural beings. Not human. Never having been human to anyone’s certainty. But they are full of treachery and tricks, working within their own understanding of rules and acceptable behavior.

Yet we have done our best to neuter them. We have turned on our electric lights, made leprechauns dance on bar tops, and spun Red Caps into singing miners. We absolutely will not acknowledge any other version of fairies than the kind that emit rainbows and hawk sugary cereals.

Match that against the monsters we now create upon their templates.

Because in order to put the Horror back into our storytelling, we needed to pretend we were being original when we made Slenderman up. Imagine the Horror… when that was indeed closer to the original…

When a monster so stacked with imagery which has been proven through the centuries of fairy tales, ghost lore, supernatural stories, and urban legend to terrify… springs forth, it does so in three dimensions. This is top class monster-building, and it only works when the general target population has never heard the original tales in order to connect them up.

Slend4

The Phantom Coachman https://atashafyfe.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/ghosts-of-the-road/

This is how the younger generations become “easy” marks. And every year there is a fresh infusion of teenagers who have never heard of or read about certain monsters.

And so this is also why genre Horror is solely presumed to be an emotional playground for teenagers.

Never mind that this is a misconception. Never mind that Horror has even more in store for adults…

The constant recycling of monster traits can lead to some pretty heady stuff. When we as writers tap into primal imagery which has survived with its “scary” intact for centuries, we have the ingredients for a monster that will cling to the imagination in ways that do not let go.

According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, we should never underestimate the power of primal images to hijack our reason. Says Gottschall: “Take fear. Scary stories leave scars. In a 2009 study, the psychologist Joanne Cantor showed that most of us have been traumatized by scary fiction. Seventy five percent of her research subjects [my emphasis] reported intense anxiety, disruptive thoughts, and sleeplessness after viewing a horror film. For a quarter of her subjects, the lingering effects of the experience persisted for more than six years… for 91 percent of Cantor’s subjects, scary films – not real world nightmares such as 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide by machete – were the source of their most traumatic memories.” (149-150)

No wonder Moms everywhere warn against watching those scary movies.

And no wonder we sneak downstairs when the house is dark and watch them anyway. Sometimes, to life-changing effect.

Slenderman is no different when you take away his tux. He is merely a continued reshaping of a reliable mythic monster.

Slend5

http://skulduggery.wikia.com/wiki/Springheeled_Jack

Alleged to have been “officially” created by Eric Knudsen in June 2009 for a website writing contest, Slenderman burst upon the internet scene and has not looked back…

But we need too. Because according to Knudsen himself, the monster was based on Mothman, Men in Black, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, Shadow People, and the works of Stephen King, among others (Redfern 19-20) This means he was more re-invented than invented…more invented than “discovered.”

Slend6

https://www.dmhsperspective.com/government-and-their-secrets/2017/01/16/the-real-men-in-black/

The Slenderman template has a long history, stretching as far back as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon…even spirits that haunted stately houses in Britain with tall, dark ghostly figures or stalked the moors, or drove phantom coaches…

All of these images work for a myriad of psychological reasons. For example, we have a built-in, hard-wired obsession with tall, thin, spindly characters in black, nattily dressed, and often sporting a full complement of razor sharp teeth when they aren’t missing eyes or mouths or features in general.

We are afraid of….strangers. Especially if they can just vanish before our eyes, or come and go out of fevered dreams…

Strangers have always been dangerous…whether we are talking child abduction, fairy/child abduction, avenging spirits of the murdered or apparitions of the improperly interred dead, outcasts that stumble across one’s tribe, or the only survivor of a plague… strangers often brought death to our ancestors. And they still do in some Walmarts, some high schools, some workplaces, some highways…

Yet in order to propagate fear properly, monsters’ tales must be told. And retold. Embellished. Made familiar and too close to home. It may well be why campfires were invented. And perhaps most importantly, scary things must be shared and believed in because adults do not believe in them.

Yet, the secret is…we still do. We just pretend we don’t. Because at our age, we know there is not a darned thing we can do about them.

This is how the Real World becomes entangled in fairy tales – and I mean the real kind of fairy tales that never end well – when Horror becomes Literature because “…sometimes what needs to be expressed can only be done through the monstrous, for sometimes the human condition is monstrous, defined by the breach of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the normal and the abnormal, good and evil, right and wrong.” (Held 4-5)

This is why I became a Horror writer.

And the sooner we see Slenderman as a stand-in for our deepest fears, the sooner we can make newer, scarier monsters from his mold.

Slend7

On Finding the Original in a Many-Splendored Slender

I find it interesting that Slenderman has begat endless progeny in Horror, and that his likeness and progeny proliferate right now in American Horror.

Whether we are talking film or writing, we are being drawn into the vacuum of the tall thin monstrosity that stalks our world. He hides in the forest – a Freudian reference if ever there was one – lurking in our primitive desires and fears.

But like all fairy tales, his presence in our fiction has issued a new challenge to Horror writers. Tell any tale you want, but find the point of originality.

Here again, writing becomes like music. And like in music, in writing we have Jazz to deal with.

In music, there is the following of notes, and there is improvisation. If Horror writers insist on using our primal templates, we must also find a way to deliver the monster in some sneaky, unsuspecting way.

Some say all tales derive from fairy tales and their ilk…some say there are only three original plots in fiction.

But even if that is true, we have only to look at the many stories that these seminal stories themselves begat to know we can one-up the original. We simply have to figure out how, why, when, and where. We have to write and then edit with the realization that when we borrow these primal templates,  the melodies are familiar — but we don’t want them completely recognized. We need to surprise in order to delight, to terrify, to unsettle and then haunt.

And sometimes this unfortunately may mean shelving a monster because the sacrificing the original just won’t do. It won’t matter how well a story is told if the only image that surfaces belongs to another story. We see that now with all wizards and witches in Young Adult. Just stating the premise alone is flirting with professional rejection. We are still seeing the same problem with dragons in Fantasy. On one hand, a writer set such glorious imaginations on fire that the creative waters are bursting the banks, but on the other, the audience now needs time to forget in order to be surprised again.

It is an unfortunate characteristic of our species that we endlessly search for patterns. And when we spot them in fiction, they spoil the yarn.

Slenderman is doing this now in Horror. He has replaced Zombies, which replaced Vampires. And we are now nearing tilt.

Writers must endlessly search for the new angle on the old tale. And “sometimes only horror can say what needs to be said” (Held 5).

But we need not despair. Says Jacob Held in his introduction to Stephen King and Philosophy titled, “On Writing Popular Philosophy”: “Noel Carrol notes that ‘the attraction of supernatural Horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces…’ we are attracted to that which horrifies us.” (6)

And indeed we are. The popularity of fan fiction websites like CreepyPasta which contain whole sections of fictional Slender tributes are the proof of our own self-horror. The fact that even left to our own devices we primally gravitate to the same monsters over an over are not proof of their existence, but proof that we fear ourselves most of all. We fear what we have become. We dread the endless threat to innocence. We fear we are already in a fairy tale of the old school…

Deep down, we know the truth: we are all faceless ruiners of innocent humanity. No wonder we see suits in the trees with preternaturally long arms waving and probing the night to grab us and drag us to face the laws of the dark forest… Judgement and justice always seek us out.

We cannot make a single choice that does not have ramifications which ripple across our geography and potentially damage other human beings.

And yes, we wear our finery when we wreak our havoc, top hat and tails, our suits and facelessness, professing our own innocence in the doing of our misdeeds. That we fancy ourselves as innocent makes us fair game for the tentacled arms of justice. It makes us deserving of the night gaunts and haunts that stalk the dark, wild areas of our imaginations.

This is what causes Lovecraft to capture us: our fear that we do not deserve the planet we occupy. Cthulhu waits. Judgement is pending. And all manner of dark things have come to course the night-world and hunt us. Including Nyarlathotep…a god masquerading as a man dressed in black… (Bilstad 208-209)

It should not be a far leap to see that the current impact of Slenderman on modern American Horror is nothing more than a continuation of a tradition of guilt and hair-raising storytelling. Because creating guilt even where there might not need any to be is part of our human legacy. But those among us – especially young, idealistic teenagers – who are just starting to explore the world around them as well as their own places within that world – are especially susceptible to the myths that spring from our very DNA.

This is not a bad thing at all…it is, rather, how great Horror gets its start… Because it is within those memories, those glimpses into the indistinct shadows of night where hungry, faceless things await us with inescapably long arms and featureless faces that we will see reflections of ourselves.

And the monsters just keep on coming… like they’re rolled out on a rack…

 

References:

Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications, c2011.

Gottshcall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2012.

Held, Jacob M., ed. “Introduction: On Writing Popular Philosophy.” Stephen King and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, c2016

Redfern, Nick. The Slenderman Mysteries: an Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life. Newburyport, MA: New Page Books, c2017.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1819). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c1990.

 

Creepy Clowns: New Trope, or Very, Very Old One?


What is it about clowns?

We either love them, or hate them. And it seems we decide which side of the fence we are on pretty early in childhood. It’s a position that never seems to change, even as we grow older. But why do we fear them at all? Aren’t they there to bring us happiness and laughter?

And why does dressing as a scary clown cause so much emotional distress?

Surely it can’t be Stephen King’s fault… Even though those of us who saw the first incarnation of It on television that November of 1990 probably still can’t get the images of Pennywise as played by the incomparable Tim Curry out of our heads…

c1

No, our fear and dread of clowns goes much, much deeper.

And the real explanation is yet another reason why Horror is such a complex, subtext-laced genre – one which has so many tentacles in cultural, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological sciences.

Because if we are going to understand how clowns are connected to our deepest, darkest fears, we are going to have to look at our all-too-human beginnings.

C2

Clown Kachina (Koshari)

The Clown As Trickster

For many primitive cultures, clowns serve a function that is only in part comedic. The comedy of such clowns is meant to be a distraction – a tool for nudging or shifting the attention from the worldly to the spiritual by exaggerating behaviors, mores, and the absurdity of humanity’s natural hubris. But the non-comedic and true purpose of clowns is instruction. And much like the recorded encounters of common people with fairies and beings of folk tale and myth, such meetings are pregnant with danger.

Clowns are spirit-beings, capricious, dangerous creatures who trick hapless humans into seeing the world obliquely, spiritually, respectfully in spite of our personally contrived perceptions of normalcy (with which we continually edit the world to our own satisfaction).

Depicted in ways that exaggerate, mock or distort human physical characteristics or behaviors, our early ancestors saw clowns for what they are: forces of nature that sometimes struggle to imitate an imperfect humanity, but always have an agenda. Their images were rendered as curious, sometimes comical, yet other worldly and never quite human. Often our reciprocal imitation of the clown imitating us is equally disturbing, the use of paint and masks and props meant to communicate that a clown is indeed something to be wary of.

C3

African clown (Ogbo)

Worse, the motives of clowns are always unknown. Sometimes they distract nastier spirits from their intentions against humans – like a rodeo clown distracts the bull. But more often they seek to teach humans by utilizing a rather unsettling series of actions based within a complicated theater of the absurd.

As such, encounters with clowns are better experienced as cautionary tales; because clowns are travelers along the borders of perceived reality and the supernatural one in which all manner of spiritual dangers reside. Therefore within many primitive cultures, such intercourse with the world of spirit requires the presence of and interpretation by shamans, medicine people, priests, and sorcerers. Insanity, possession, and illness can result from these encounters if proper protocols and interpretation are not followed.

What is certain about clowns recounted in this primitive dance is that such beings from the Other World operate according to rules that do not apply to humans, but within the web of which there are serious human consequences. As such, those rules are unknown by most humans; and when recounted, they seem comical and absurd even of themselves. To navigate such meetings then, is a precarious and dangerous affair – something our primitive brains still recognize when we stare at the toy clown sitting in the rocking chair in the moonlight.

In primitive traditions, clowns are simultaneously both sacred and base mischief-makers. But they are always dangerous, their intentions never fully revealed.

Their lessons are always taught by deceit and rough handling. They are seldom sympathetic or empathetic to their human subjects.

The clown is, according to Joseph Campbell, an enduring archetype of myth (Campbell [5]). And as such, we already know him intimately… perhaps, too intimately for comfort.

C4

The Clown as Allegory

In Literature and film and all of the Arts, the Clown is never just a clown.

It is the very irksome nature of clowns that keeps us off balance enough that we might just learn something in spite of ourselves, and for that reason, writers and artists and playwrights have used them generously in their works.

Some even say that the presence of the clown represents the writer or artist him- or herself. According to E.A. Williams in an essay which addresses the Literary roles of the clown in film, poetry and prose titled “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film”:

“Defined by their unfamiliar and alien status, these characters are metaphorical reflections…of some other’s mode of being. Consequently, these masks ‘simply do not exist’ beyond their function as outsiders or others; they function only as ‘prosaic allegorizations’ or ‘prosaic metaphors’ that reveal and subvert the falsity of official culture at the same time at the same time as they serve to endorse certain folk truths.” (Williams 110)

In other words, like their handling by primitive cultures, clowns in film and Literature – by their seeming out-of-place and out-of-step – are there to draw the attention of their audience to something else.

Continues Williams:

“Clown and fool characters instantiate carnival inversions of mainstream culture, but they are less directly connected to their author’s intentions and the world outside their texts.” (111) But they do “’degrade official culture by eliciting the audience’s laughter at the ideologies they parody. But unlike the rogue, neither the clown nor the fool takes pleasure in letting the audience in on the joke…clowns and fools are also distinct from rogues in that they can seem otherworldly” and furthermore “do not understand the extratextual world [;] they clearly do not belong to it, remaining detached from the audience’s reality.”

Clowns remain uncontrollable, yet control the stage upon which they inform their audience. Whether we laugh because the clown makes us uncomfortable, or because it causes us distress over its point can be a mystery even to ourselves. Yet in clowns we tolerate what is otherwise unacceptable behavior or commentary. We readily accept satire and parody, mockery and offensive imitation with nothing more than laughter. This is something comedians understand, something poets like Shakespeare mastered, and something even contemporary writers use often in building supernatural characters. Clowns can give us our voice.

As Williams says, “it is because these characters are ‘not of this world’ [that] they possess their own special rights and privileges for degrading the ideologies of the world’s official culture.” Indeed, these figures continually “espouse offensive or objectionable feelings in their words, actions, and thoughts. Moreover their bizarre behavior distinguishes them from the audience, granting them an exclusive ‘right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life.’” (112)

C5

Medieval European Clown

This makes the use of clowns in film and Literature invaluable – even when the clown archetype is subverted, hidden beneath human characterization. It is with the use of the clown that Literary motifs can be achieved, hidden symbols revealed, themes punctuated.

Is this why we find clowns neatly tucked into Horror?

Very likely; clowns can be the vehicle through which Literary messages can be coded, where deeper issues can be critiqued and even mocked. But it remains the over-arching and very primal discomfort at the simple sight of a clown that for Horror writers and Horror audiences provides the artistic coup de grâce. This is because we still have Freud…and we still have our primitive minds to thank for the unsettling creepiness of clowns.

Explains Tara Brady in her article, “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?”:

“The Freudian id is not the only psychoanalytical trope in play. In his (increasingly voguish) 1919 paper, The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud postulates that we are frightened by something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar, a thesis that finds parallels in contemporary neurological research into fear and pattern recognition. Clowns, by this account, are both recognisably human, yet visibly distorted, what with those elongated feet and bulbous noses.”  ( Brady)

And indeed it is the very appearance of clowns that is indescribably, primally disturbing…

Yet it is one thing to tuck clowns neatly into boxes lined with fine Literature and theatrical plays – where we can take them out and analyze them in the safety of academia. It is quite another when –as in primitive times – they rise to trick us and unbalance our perceptions right in real life.

Sometimes this occurs with an unwelcome gift from a well-meaning relative, a unexpected find in an antique shop, or maybe by our proximity in being a little too close to a satirized reality… and the absurd truth of the moment.

Yet we seem fixated on the perceived “loss” of the cheerful clown; and in that way, we are made afraid of our “new” obsession with creepy clowns. We fear things have changed within us somehow, and not for the better.

Asks Becky Little in her article, “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns:

“Why exactly have creepy clowns become such a trope in pop culture? After all, didn’t they used to be happy and cheerful? Well, not exactly, according to Benjamin Radford, author of Bad Clowns.

‘It’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad,” he says, “because they were never really good.’” (Little)

And this was true until about 1950.

C6.gif

Bozo and Friends: the Re-Purposing of Clowns & the Illusion of Happiness

It doesn’t help that for many of us, our formal introduction to clowns came at the hands of children’s television shows and as pitchmen for hawking hamburgers. Such re-purposing of the clown from supernatural trickster to camera-ready advertisement could only conclude in disaster for both humanity and the clown in general. Indeed, if there was a plan, it backfired.

Within a brief few generations, we were encouraging our children to love clowns, to trust clowns, to embrace the happiness they were said to represent. Yet many children did not get the message, carrying within their very DNA an unspoken Horror of clowns. For those kids, the world of It makes raw, perfect sense.

In fact, according to one University of Sheffield Study as reported by the BBC in 2008, Researcher Dr. Penny Curtis said: “As adults we make assumptions about what works for children.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.”

And child psychologist Patricia Doorbar goes on to clarify:

“Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.” (BBC)

Still the Public Relations machinery was in gear, and what children they could not bribe with cartoons, prancing poodles, and birthday parties, they sought to lure with a burger and fries.

C7

For some, it worked. But we barely had the opportunity to fall under the spell of the happy clown when it all ended. Almost overnight, the magic of clowns was gone –replaced by the magic of television, and then by the Power of Adults, who could so easily replace one clown with another, one actor with another, one product with another.

The Age of Disposability was upon us.

The last heyday of happy clowning was when children knew the names of their avatars: Bozo, Clarabell, Willie the Hobo, Chuchin, Freddie the Freeloader… Once clowns were officially made back into fools, most of us emotionally checked out.

So is it not surprising that the archetype would rise from the ashes, and to do so wearing the mask of Horror? Clowns have always had dual natures. And they are fickle, capricious teachers.

C8

John Wayne Gacy, 1976

The Return to Creepy

The most disturbing concept of the clown drifted into our imaginations with the rise of a serial killer. John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 known victims from 1972 to 1978 in Cook County, Illinois, and performed as Pogo the Clown for charitable events, parades, and children’s parties. And despite the heinousness of his crimes, nothing stuck in the American imagination like the fact that he performed as a clown for children.

This was in all likelihood the beginning of the Creepy Clown phase in American subculture. And while one can argue that it is much easier to mock what one truly fears, we should also be asking why we found it so much easier to find the clown at fault than the man behind the mask…

True to form, we took our fears to excess. Gone was the “happy clown” who had then existed for a relatively brief historical period. And back is the one that haunted our primitive dreams, presently disguised as a serial killer who surely was more than that, and whose image masked something older, more terrible and insidious – now, when we have so deftly banished shamans, medicine people, priests and sorcerers from our sophisticated lives.

C9

And at the precise moment when circuses – our official “home” for clowns and clowning – were coming under fire for animal abuse by watchdog groups like PETA, the world we had fashioned to contain clowns and what they represented to us for good or ill was also falling, changing, becoming unrecognizable.

Within the microcosm of the falling Big Top, we could see our own failures and losses. The innocence of the circus (and therefore all things American) was being tainted; the idea of carnival workers was becoming a source for assumed criminal behavior – the carnival the last hiding place for misfits, Others, and those who did not belong as seen through so many lenses of inequality (class, culture, race, physical deformity). We liked everything having its place, popping out merely to entertain us and then leaving town. We never imagined it was us under the tent. Indeed, so much more was coming down with the tent poles…

Formerly a place where magic existed, the circus and carnivals became symbolically an entirely different and potent place where magic was twisted to fit a new need: anger, violence, mockery, revenge. Circuses and carnivals with their clowns and costumes, their masks and mischief, suddenly became threatening. And clowns were their spokesmen, the entities of Horror when they did not conjure it.

Yet we left it there –precisely there. After Stephen King’s It, we seemed unable or unwilling to investigate the mystery of the clown further…we were…distracted.

Until suddenly in August, 2016, when the peculiar, occasional “sighting” came to an international head.

According to Becky Little, “Creepy (and fake) clown sightings spread across the U.S. and other countries, creating a kind of viral clown panic.”

C10

The Wasco Clown, 2014. http://www.huhmagazine.co.uk/7834/clowns-are-wandering-california-at-night-and-no-one-knows-why

Speculation for why clowns began “appearing,” of course, runs rampant. But although one could venture more scientifically or sociologically founded guesses, one also has to consider the far reach of the Internet, the average person’s need for fifteen minutes of fame, the underground popularity of such characters as Slender Man and other fanfic memes, and simple perverse human curiosity.

Although, one peculiar coincidence lingers to tease the American mind:

“Andrew McConnell Stott suggests that the clown epidemic may be related to an orange-haired, rival entertainer.

‘It all peaked during the election period,’ says McConnell Stott. ‘I think if you look at the heightened absurdity in contemporary American political discourse and public discourse, the clues are there. Something I thought fascinating is that scary clowns were sighted primarily in at-risk communities, like rust-belt communities or rural communities; places that have been hollowed out by economic stress. Scary clowns were seen on the peripheries of these communities; they didn’t go up to people and wave knives in their faces. They were glimpsed in windows or stood under streetlamps. Just enough to freak everybody out, but not to endanger them. Reminders of a previous age. The return of the repressed. And then. Donald Trump was elected and the clowns were never seen again.’” (Brady)

(And if that isn’t food for Literary thought, you haven’t been paying attention…)

Still, as we sit on the eve of another decade of clown-induced dread and Horror wrought at the hands of the remake of It… One should consider this:

Anything we cannot understand or interpret, anything wearing a mask and hiding its true intent, anything we cannot see completely or assess the level of threat of (yet has at least momentary power over us), we fear. Peculiar, unpredictable or inappropriate movements, unsettling eye contact, behaviors, and clothing… anything not “right” to our vision, that reeks of the unfamiliar, the “other,” and the “exotic unknown and unknowable”….all of those things summon the image of the ancient clown – the one which made its appearances before campfires to teach us how unimportant we are in the world – that clown scares us.

Because when it comes to supernatural influence, there is nothing at all we can do about that; there is no one we can call. And if it comes from that dark and mysterious place between the two worlds, there is probably no place to run…

 C11

 

References

BBC News. “Hospital Clown Images ‘Too Scary’” January 15, 2008. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7189401.stm

Brady, Tara. “No Laughing Matter: Why Are We So Terrified of Clowns?” The Irish Times. Sept. 9, 2017. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/no-laughing-matter-why-are-we-so-terrified-of-clowns-1.3209215

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Pdf excerpt retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://podcasts.shelbyed.k12.al.us/shutchings/files/2015/05/TheHeroJourney.pdf

Little, Becky. “A Brief History of Creepy Clowns.” Sept 13, 2017. Retrieved 10/31, 2017 from http://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-creepy-clowns

Williams, E.A. “Bakhtin and Borat: the Rogue, the Clown and the Fool in Carnival Film.” Philament 20(2015) : Humor. Retrieved 10/31/2017 from http://www.philamentjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/20_WILLIAMS_150204.pdf

SEE ALSO

http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/03/health/creepy-clown-sighting-psychology/index.html

 

Cthulhu Worshippers: Is the Rise of Themed Anthologies Good For Horror?


When I recently looked across the sea of my past years’ Horror purchases, I was struck by just how many Lovecraft anthologies there were. Themed anthologies are on the steady increase – collections dedicated to one author’s established universe, one established monster, or one Horror concept. And of those themes, the work of H.P. Lovecraft absolutely dominates. Yet as open-minded as I try to be in my Horror story collecting, I found an alarming amount of tentacles on my shelves.

Herein lay a truth: I am a sucker for tentacles. I enjoy reading Lovecraftian fiction…but I do not tend to write it.

So if I did not purchase more generic modern collections, what did it mean? Were they not out there? Granted, I discriminate against vampire collections and I have not yet dipped my toes into steampunk-tinted Horror… But the prolific dominance of Lovecraft struck me as more than coincidence.

So that begs the question what does it mean for Horror writers – this rise in themed anthologies of which Lovecraft dominates?

Too Much of a Good Thing

World class Horror editor Paula Guran states in her introduction to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016, “…there were around 15 anthologies of Lovecraftian tales published in 2015 – not to mention other venues that published such stories…”(8)

Fifteen! I am imagining that this is – like – twelve anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction we did not need that year….twelve opportunities for other stories of Horror fiction to have been officially birthed in our world.

Perhaps that is the bulk of the type of Horror being published today. But maybe, just maybe, the singular and collective weight of ALL of the same kind of anthologies in my personal library means something besides my own addiction: maybe it means our genre has fallen into a rut.

No, I thought…surely it can’t be….

And yet the proof is on every bookstore shelf. And it is causing my floors to sag.

ct1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fan Fiction: Let’s Call It What It Is

Believe it or not, it starts with Technology. Technology has caused a lot of changes to publishing in general and to Horror in particular. Horror has grown toward Hollywood like weeds to the sun…

In her essay, “Blurring the Lines,” Amber Benson states, “There used to be a hard-and-fast rule. There was “them” and then there was “us.” “Them” was made up of artists – the people who created TV shows, books, films, music, and visual art. “Us” was the group of people who consumed what they made. “Them” was set apart from “us” because “them” was creating material that was disseminated, on a large scale, to “us” out there in the real world. “Us” could enjoy “them” and their work, but “us” could not contribute to the creations we loved in any appreciable fashion…But then something interesting happened: the internet took over the world, and this hard-and-fast rule slowly began to disintegrate. All of a sudden “us” was able to horn in on “them” and their creative process in a very public way – most notably in the form of fanfiction.” (Jamison, 334)

Enter the world of Big Money. Enter the world of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray… That’s right: Fifty Shades started as – believe it or not – a fanfiction of Twilight. And for that mystery of artistic and unholy alliances, one has merely to follow the money trail… Hollywood has discovered the great storytelling in fanfic Vampires and scary entities that populate urban legend. This has led to the migration of the movie public to the bookstore titles traditional publishing has cringed at, yet harvested with tremendous profits.

Such success has in turn inspired fanfic sites to create and self-publish their own anthologies, not always to as profitable acclaim. But Hollywood has noticed. The fanfic writing collective that is Creepypasta (http://www.creepypasta.org/) is the undisputed home of such well-known Hollywood pollinating characters as Slender Man, Eyeless Jack, Jeff the Killer, and The Rake…

To the Horror Establishment’s chagrin, this is where a lot of “real” modern Horror resides – neatly ensconced in the folds of pulpy Fan Fiction, tucked away in secretive places on the internet. And it is thriving there… perhaps because of technology… and with no thanks to more “reputable forms of publishing.” Creepypasta has established its own reputable form… and its ever-growing following is testament not perhaps to content so much as its aspirations to recreate the much adored Horror of Yore…

Much of its content is literarily a bumpy ride, reminiscent of the fireside tale, campy cautionary tales Horror is known for… but it is a ride worth taking – fun, engaging, scary, and pure pulp.

All of that flies in the face of technology and Literature itself – the very tech that threatened to permanently banish Horror to the history shelves – or worse, to sociology….

ct2

The question traditional Horror folk have is that with such “obvious technical flaws” why is fanfic doing so well and in sharp contrast to traditional publishing?

Part of the problem is indeed that invasion of technology that slaughtered traditional Horror. Fanfic took the scythe away from the reaper and built its own platform of resistance. Isn’t it interesting that we acolytes of traditional Horror writing are “borrowing” from those sites and their writers?

To sort this out and give credit where credit is due, we have to admit that for traditional Horror fiction there is a price to pay for having so much in neat, shiny new toys to mesmerize and distract us like a roomful of little children. And fanfic places like Creepypasta have managed to tap into that elusive “something” that old Horror fiction’s corpse remains animated by, the very thing that lurks behind the everlasting light of electronic devices… And ironically, it is that same thing that so much published modern Horror has failed to find; too often it is dismissed as cliché or trite…because handled ineptly or too pulp-like it can be…

It is appropriate that technology has also led to a lot of pushback toward the older styles of storytelling – embracing the chapters of Horror’s own history where writers combined forces with artists and landed in pulpy swamps, creating comic books and graphic novels, seeking independent means of publication and now internet ones. It is, undoubtedly, a rebellion.

One of the largest surges backward has happened in Fan Fiction – that oft-chided subgenre of all genres where it is always and only about the storytelling and known characters. It is often – in Horror – purely reminiscent of urban legends (even new ones and contrived ones), about successful movies and video games. But it is also about the kind of writing traditional fiction writers deign to acknowledge and love to “abhor.”

With Horror fanfiction there is always a component of dark fantasy afoot, laced with what can only be called a rabid fan loyalty, and within its closed communities it provides a creative space made to sow all wild seeds of imagination. There is instant editorial and fan feedback – because its audience knows by heart every sustainable plot and can grasp every new realistic possibility. Fan Fiction forces a writer to mind the lines – to know the character and the fiction world it lives in – to write to spec with twists and caricatures and secrets and alternate endings. These are the speculative, secret-seeming chapters about characters from stories you love. Fan Fiction (officially “fanfic” in their world) is its own world.

This goes against the grain of the isolated, socially dysfunctional curmudgeon most writer’s manuals claim we should be, and whatever delusion we ourselves subscribe to…No wonder there is “rivalry” if not jealousy; our environment is less supportive of our endeavors. And far too many of us consider the running of that lonely gauntlet to be a professional requirement for doing a “respectable” job… We shrink from fellow writers bold enough to just “put it out there” all un-vetted and unadorned.

Back to the Themed Drawing Board

So how did such unsavory fanfic elements leak back into traditional Horror? The answer may be as simple as admitting to the struggle for contemporary Horror to re-discover its voice…to reconnect with our roots and regain Critical respect.

We have no choice but to admit that “traditionally published” modern Horror in America has lost its way… And while it could be a consequence of all of the technology that blossomed around us (willing participants or not), that unavoidable invasion of all things glossy and new that supplanted what the imagination needs to drive darker fantasy and fear: abandoned sites of historical ambiance, the ruins of our own civilization, the decay of our own lifetimes. Our minds dismiss the shadowed failings of our civilization. We are in denial.

Modern Horror writers have noticed. They have questioned the same way editors and Critics and readers have questioned what is wrong with our Horror today that we are not duly terrified by the words? And just like the editors and Critics and readers, we have flooded back to the early writers – the ones who did scare us – to ask how and why. Why did their words work and how do we tap into that zeitgeist?

ct3

That means we are not only looking at Stephen King and Clive Barker, but we are also looking at Lovecraft and Poe and James and Blackwood and LeFanu… We are re-reading our unofficial canon. And we are being influenced.

So maybe the next logical step is themed anthologies… Indeed nothing helps a writer get into the head of his or her idol like writing “in the tradition” of that writer – borrowing that author’s personally tailored conventions – and learning how to “write to specifications” of an editor or market. Getting one’s head in there also exposes weaknesses in the boundaries the author may have touched… It inadvertently uncovers and explores some of the themes and higher concepts that interest (get ready for it) Literary Critics… So imitation can become a lesson in how to create Literary elements – fleshing out your own work with those dual-meanings best recognized by lovers of poetry.

Imagine. But there is also another interesting side-effect to themed anthologies: the pretense of elevating Fan Fiction to a more “legitimate” professional space.

And the fact that everyone just dances around that pretense is rather amazing to me – and insulting to the very real, already legitimate world of fanfic writers…

We should call what we are doing exactly what we are doing: pillaging fanfic for the desperately needed blood infusion into modern American Horror. But we are sharing the same nurturing roots, two branches of the same tree.

At the very least, we are in keeping with tradition here – even Fan Fiction traditions. According to Anne Jamison in her totally fascinating book,  Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World  (Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013) we have been at it since Sherlock Holmes, even as times have changed the way Fan Fiction is derived. Says Jamison, “None of these earlier literary practices are exactly the equivalent as what we understand as fanfiction today…Our understanding of the key relationships – those that exist variously among writer, written, reader, publisher, object published, and source – changes over time. What doesn’t change, or rather, what never disappears, is the writerly habit of writing from other sources.” (35) In other words – imitation.

Imitation is one of the ways writers learn to write. Continues Jamison, “Writers have always entered into and intervened in familiar stories and styles and collaborated on authorship through discussion or other forms of influence…We have long given (or ceded) credit, ultimately, to a single authorial name – and fan fiction, with all its collaborative glee, continues that tradition.” (35)

It is why Fan Fiction is a wonderful environment for learning about story-telling and how important it is to stick to conventions established for certain monsters and to explore all of the possibilities of character – to retell stories until you get the right version told – the one that sings. It is a place in which a writer learns the importance of the reader (who might well more passionately know your character’s potential than even you) and the utter necessity of toeing the line of logic.

These are the reasons writers have “pirated” the concept of Fan Fiction and re-christened the process as writing more reputable product for themed anthologies. Writers – like the editors who solicit them – have accepted the challenge to “write in the tradition of Lovecraft”… to tell “new” stories in a way Lovecraft himself might have approved.

Yet it is subversively (and maybe perversely) almost a Frankenstein effort: are we trying on writerly hats, or are editors so hungry for Lovecraft-level work that they won’t stop until they find a substitute? Why are we so infatuated that we are publishing Lovecraft Fan Fiction in place of original modern Horror fiction?

ct4

I mean, I’m not sure, but I think we should feel insulted…

Don’t get me wrong: even I have written some fanfic-styled things myself – just for the challenge of doing so. They were fun to write and the ghost of copyright hangs over them. But fun and education was neatly tucked into the experience of writing them. The End.  I am thinking that outside of coincidence or anniversary tributes, there should be limits to the traditional publishing of fanfic themed anthologies. I mean if you really want original work…truly new, original work….

What is good for Horror writers may not be good for the genre as a whole… Sure we need to master mimicry the way artists master Masters – to learn the many techniques available to us. Then we need to paint our own pictures, mix our own palettes. We need to explore, to shed fetters, to find new ways of scaring, to play with language and the darker, clawed things that clutter our minds.

While we are casting our creative nets wider, we need to grow up and also cast aside our personal demons with regard to levels of professional legitimacy. Our genre grows from varied roots, and we don’t all have to write Literature or be professional outcasts. Most certainly there are standard differences, vetting differences, editorial differences. But in the end readers want to read good, scary Horror. So do Horror writers, who coincidentally hope to write the stuff that way.

We need to acknowledge with due respect where we get our inspirations, where we place our stories, and the audience that loves them. We need to consider that maybe fanfic is doing so well because those writers are telling the stories people want to read in our genre, because our genre is too obsessed with ideals of perfection and we are not listening to part of our constituency.

That maybe – just maybe – we need to teach, train, coach and mentor writers who DO want to write more Literary Horror.  That maybe we should stop with the whole mystical search for the next writing messiah to bring Big Money back to publishing.

We also need to admit when we seize and repurpose a tradition for our own use and profit, and recognize that the whole real problem is that maybe just maybe there aren’t enough “legitimately recognized” venues for the number of writers in our genre, or enough Horror being traditionally published, or that traditional publishing needs to acknowledge the value – monetary and artistically contributory – that “illegitimate forms of writing” bring to the genre – that therefore, perhaps they ARE legitimate, just different.

I think we must do what only we can do… We need to have faith in our own fiction voices, our own stories, our own versions of characters and plots, even if that means we don’t see a market for them right now. Be true to yourself and your Muse.  Don’t let the mirage of fame and alleged Overnight Success color your choices. As long as we are imitating Lovecraft, let’s do it right: Lovecraft imitated nobody. He preferred to not be published than to sell out for money.

And as for the illusive possibility that you would be discovered and beloved in this lifetime? Well, the public is fickle. If you ever do connect suddenly with a following, you need to have work in the wings, ready to go. If you don’t, someone who does will step in front of you…maybe even out-fanfic you…

And that would be more than a shame. It would be pure, unmitigated Horror.

ct5

References

Benson, Amber. “Blurring the Lines.” (p. 384-388) Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013.

Guran, Paula, ed. The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

Jamison, Anne. Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, c2013

 

 

Cover Story: Judging the Book Business of Horror


I miss the ‘80s. All of the time. And I miss it because of the book covers.

This is not a product of my age, however. It is instead the fact that we face an inexcusable irony in today’s Age of Information Technology: it’s harder than ever to find information…sound, truthful, vetted information. About anything.

From who wrote what to canon lists, from how to write a short story to the definition of Literary terms and Literary Criticism…All the way to where is the New Horror shelved….Just because it once was aptly published does not mean you can find it – or find it easily – today. Even when it is right in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see.

This has more to do with the packaging than you think. And with Technology, the packaging seems to have homogenized along with everything else. Technology has this nasty habit of making everything disappear, right before the eyes.

But if there are exceptions, why isn’t the proof of the past and the proof of current sales figures enough to send us right back to the awesome book covers of Yore? Why do we assume it to be more complicated than simply judging a book –and buying it – by its cover?

Still a Snipe Hunt

Younger, tech-savvy folk might not want to admit it, but when actual people were in charge we managed to have accurate systems for searching and retrieval, for validation and reference. One didn’t have to go far to find someone who could explain the system. You were one summer afternoon away from the Vaults of All Human Knowledge…and from all the Horror you could handle. One simple reason was book cover art.

Ahh, the Good Old Days… when monsters roamed the paperback displays and color shouted genre.

King

The real bottom line in retail book selling is that books are judged by their covers in a serious and instantaneous way that has dire consequences. Says Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) in a 2013 article for The Huffington Post: “ ‘Our brains are wired to process images faster than words…When we see an image, it makes us feel something.’ A great cover, he says, can ‘help the reader instantly recognize that this book is for them.’ ” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

In other words, it connects the reader to the content – to expectations that include genre. That can lead to a purchase, even if the author is unknown.

But it can also make inferences about the level of faith the writer and/or publisher has in the work, the quality of editing and writing within, and provoke gut reactions to the book as a product. Continues Coker, “In addition to promising what a book will deliver, the [cover] image also promises (or fails to promise) that the author is a professional, and that the book will honor the reader’s time.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

So why aren’t we seeing more commitment from publishers? Are they intentionally trying to disguise Horror? Is this part of the movement to eliminate genre altogether, to “improve” the overall Literary quality of our writing, or a denial of our denial that all writing is Literature (of some sort)?  Or is it simply a part of a larger manufactured truth manipulated to prove to everyone that Horror (as a target genre) is changing and has lost its teeth? If Horror falls, is another genre next?

Yet good Horror is toothy. It’s edgy. And it’s typically not Literature. So why are we trying so hard to herd all writers into the same corner, starting with the book cover? It’s not going to improve literacy, book sales, or the quality of the writing.

I still buy Horror, and so do others. When we find it. It is simply more disappointing when the cover seems artless and flat, when it doesn’t invite you to hold it in your hands, to caress it, and clutch it to you when the world intrudes. It also doesn’t make it stand out on the shelf…from all of the thousands of others.

Working in a retail bookstore has been a blessing for the reader in me. It’s helped me “happen” across new Horror and new Horror writers without the very prejudiced opinions of publishing house marketing departments.

I don’t have to worry that Stephen King might be fulfilling a contract agreement or personal favor he couldn’t get out of by recommending a title, I don’t have to feel manipulated by “bestseller” lists, or have titles pushed at me. But it has been an exercise in frustration in setting out to find Horror on any given day.

And even when I find it, if I don’t buy it immediately, it still tends to disappear almost as quickly as it is discovered, sent back to publishers for not selling, or purchased but not scheduled to be replenished…never mind the rhythm of my paychecks. This means that a Horror fan must be a predatory bookstore regular…prowling the aisles in search of the next book, willing to purchase immediately (pounce), put the item on hold (stalk), or order a copy unseen (track).  It means we must be able to find it and find it fast.

But it also means that in today’s environment of wanting it all handed directly to us, we must become diggers. We have no choice but to research our own genre ourselves and root out all of the information we can like miners in a dark tunnel… because we are in fact alone. Horror is still a genre… a niche read… and experts on the genre with author names and titles and genre history at their fingertips are still somewhat rare.

Publishers seem to be in a trance, dazed and wandering about mumbling that Horror is dead and nobody buys it. So marketing departments are happily tucking it between non-traditional bookcovers, disguised as …gag….popular fiction.

Not only has our section been eradicated in the erroneous belief that Horror has gone Literary or just gone, but it is decorated like something that sits next to The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath.

springtime  broken

What’s a Horror fan to do? Like long-playing records (now coquettishly called “vinyl”), Horror has often been bought and read because of the covers… But the truly fabulous, eye-catching art that screamed “Horror Novel…Beware of Nightmares Within!” are gone. Those magnificent illustrations have absconded to Science Fiction and Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Comics, and Young Adult fiction…leaving Horror with uninspired cover art that does not distinguish the genre from the run-of-the-mill. It doesn’t say “see me” or “hold me” or “luxuriate in my imagination.” It says “I promise to not clash with your fifty shades of white décor,” and “no one has to know you like tentacles”…

Why is this?

Tentacles Anonymous. One Day at a Time.

Some of it has to do with costs (like paying actual artists and reproduction expenses which by default then are not going to someone else), and not much is invested in things that don’t have a reputation of selling. But we have to convince publishers that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy issue: that if we can’t find Horror we don’t buy Horror.

Vibrant cover art with splashy images can help us see it, and can warn readers in search of a cozy mystery off it. The fact that Horror people also tend to be cyclical purchasers expanding their collections at pause-points of the year – like before a big storm, ahead of the summer vacation, Halloween – doesn’t always help, especially if a book is published and has its sale trial during an off time. But such knowledge can also be a marketing boon…if a publisher uses it.

Therefore we also have to remind publishers that it helps to have Horror “come out” when it is most likely to be remembered, sought out, and displayed by merchants – like at Halloween, or riding the coat tails of summer movie blockbusters. And it helps to issue it in a format we can afford – paperback, even mass-market…because we also tend to be the working poor.

All of this is alleviated if we can simply find it because it is decorated to be seen. And this is especially true now that so much Thriller/Suspense and Psychological Suspense is snarfing on our genre images to punctuate their covers…

Nor does it help to force Horror into a Literary box before it is ready. While much of the genre is experimenting with better craft and broader audiences, we all need to be more honest here: Horror is and always will be a niche audience. Far too many people want to live in their own genre bubbles; they are not interested in being converted nor are they happy about being tricked. Meanwhile, ignoring the audience that does want Horror is genre suicide.

What publishers need to rethink is this whole “genre-less” environment thing… It does not lead to more people discovering more books and authors, to higher and broader sales. Trust me: I work in a bookstore. People come to find something they want…a formula they find satisfying – whether it is classics, cozy mysteries, romance or fan fiction and military science fiction, elves, dwarves, or superheroes or poetry. They don’t look at the publisher imprint. They don’t care if the writer has a degree. They don’t know who Raymond Carver is. They might not even know anything about Critical references to Hemmingway. They wrinkle their noses, they gawk at the prices and mutter something about Amazon when neither they nor ourselves can find what they want. And one of the most requested things is…The Horror Section.

Be still my heart….

That’s right. Our fans are die-hards, and they are collectively in disbelief that the Horror section is not only gone, but remains gone. Sometimes they think they found it when they happen across the letter “K” in general fiction, until they realize the three bays are only the current catalogs of King, and Koontz. They wander for hours before dragging their exhausted bones to Customer Service like wanderers in a desert to ask “where the heck is the Horror?”

(Hey, I have a solution. Everybody out there writing Horror….quick… change your last name to start with a “K”… Take my Horror section will ya….)

Meanwhile, imagine my frustration when I have to say…”there is no Horror section. It is all out there. Somewhere.”

Keep in mind, some of us are getting old and memories fail. Names sometimes defy my speedy recollection. If only I had a section, I murmur like a mantra…I could go right to specific authors and say “this – this is GOOD”… But no. And all too often when I do remember a new title or name, the book is not there because nobody found it and it didn’t sell so it went back.

art of

Horror Writers Unite!

It may take authors to put pressure on Publishers. That may mean that authors have to take the creative bull by the horns and actually be ok with what they write. It may mean that an author has to argue with an editor about “possibilities” versus “realities.”

Note to Publishers and Horror authors: what we as readers and retailers need to buy and sell Horror is Horror that is identifiable.

That means that in lieu of an actual, let’s-make-life-easy Horror Section, we need genre codes. Visual cues…

We need to be able to spot our authors buried in the stacks of popular fiction. We need to find them when they are old, and when they are new. We need to know we are looking at Horror… not a Literary work with a handy set of (surprise!) Horror conventions.

Horror fans really are a forgiving, fun-loving bunch. We are fine with kitsch when the story is good. We are ok with pulp. And we admire the well-crafted miracles of any Poe or Lovecraft we discover. So we forgive any author trying to up their game, following the advice of marketing people who think sales will follow in confusing the public.

But we are your fans. Please stop trying to blend in. Unless you want a garage full of first editions of your book. Demand your audience be able to find you and that spectacular best seller you are sitting on.

Demand book covers that will telegraph your genre to your waiting and hungry audience. There is a lot to be said for judging a book by its cover. And that works both ways.

Horror Publishers Wake Up!

And if PUBLISHING wants a solution, if it really wants to sell books…quit messing with the genres. Books are just like anything else. It’s not the quality items that make your sales goals…it is the simple stuff. The cheap stuff. Those of us who buy it make it possible for you to pay the True Artists their Mega Paychecks. Give us our stuff. We want it back.

Really. Once upon a time our purchase of genre Horror supported whole subsidiaries and imprints, supported midlist authors, pulpy magazines, rank and file editors, bookstores, printers, artists, reviewers, critics…Hollywood… Put it back! It might not be as lush as before, but if economists are to be believed and cost of living is really relative to pay throughout history, then we should be able to finesse it. Right?

And bring back our artists! We do want monsters and tentacles and screaming girls and evil scientists and dark cemeteries on our covers – not “pretty” artwork from other genres. We do want covers that tell us we are in Horror-land – the reds, the blues, the greens… just like old movie posters…the day-glo stuff, the textured stuff, images that announce a Horror fan is reading Horror… The grunge fonts, the dripping letters…

God, I miss the ‘80s.

And all I have to do to see what could-have-been is go to the Young Adult Section.

Because Young Adult publishers and marketing departments are doing it RIGHT.

Artwork to die for.

Artwork to put in a picture frame.

Artwork that shouts “find the print!” “Who’s the artist?” “I have to have that book!”

girl  Asylum

Maybe if adult Horror fans felt like publishers had a little faith in the product…

It’s not too late to turn it around. Print is not dead and neither is Horror. And better book covers is one of the easiest ways to get our genre mojo back. We want color, we want texture, we want artwork, and… we want category identifiers on the spine – the kind that say HORROR in large letters, repeated on the back at the bottom or top of the blurb. HORROR. All caps. All the time.

It’s the way we find our genre. It’s the way we roll when we have a little spending money in our pockets.

So, publishers… You want in on this action? Or not?

 

GOOD HORROR I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY FOUND

(Nonfiction)

Grant, John. Spooky Science: Debunking the Pseudoscience of the Afterlife. New York: Sterling, c2015.

Jones, Stephen, ed. The Art of Horror: an Illustrated History. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, c2015

Travis Langley, ed. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead. New York: Sterling, c2013.

Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, c2015.

(Anthologies)

Datlow, Ellen, ed. The Monstrous. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Books, c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, ed. Classic Horror Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, comp. Great Ghost Stories: 101 Terrifying Tales. New York: Fall River Press, c2016.

Guran, Paula, ed. Mermaids. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Guran, Paula, ed. New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Jones, Stephen. Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft and Others. London: Titan Books, c2013.

Matheson, Michael. The Humanity of Monsters. Toronto, Canada: ChiZine Publications, [c2015].

(Novels & Single Author Anthologies)

Aronovitz, Michael. Phantom Effect. New York: Night Shade Books, c2016.

Baker, Jacqueline. The Broken Hours: a novel of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Talos Press, c2016.

De Kretser, Michelle. Springtime: a Ghost Story. New York: Catapult, c2014.

Kupersmith, Violet. The Frangipani Hotel. New York: Spiegel  & Grau, c2015.

Lebbon, Tim. The Silence. London: Titan, c2015.

Reid, Iain. I am Thinking of Ending Things. New York: Scout Press, [future projected release June 2016 – with an excellent cover on the advance copy, by the way]