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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is satire?

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

What is irony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A leg of lamb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

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

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

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

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

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

Continues Ulin:

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

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

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

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

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

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is also what Horror is all about.

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

Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.

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

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

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

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

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The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems a very real and very dark possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sredni Vashtar demands it.

 

The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)

Novels

The Chronicles of Clovis

When William Came

 Short Stories

A Bread and Butter Miss
A Defensive Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 References

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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The Literary Defense

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

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

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

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

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

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lovecraft in His Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing What We Want To See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovecraft is that rare exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

 

Horror as a Second Language (Fresh New Horror From Other Places & Cultures)


When we look at the tradition of Horror, we tend to embrace its ethnocentrism as a characteristic of the genre – a living trope, if you will.

We think that the construction of the genre happened in a Western vacuum and that there exists some kind of “proof” that no one else shares in the tradition of true scary tale telling. It is as though it is not legitimate if it is not published in an English-speaking country and contains predictable Western characters living out a familiar plot. We point at the acknowledged (and therefore “official”) history of Horror without recognizing that those who have judged our stories and uplifted the genre’s profile to (at times) cult status have also been “traditionally” white and male and Western – the same ones who historically controlled the presses and the public’s choice of content and access to the written word. Are we right, then, to assume that no one else is (or has ever been) writing Horror of value?

The answer is a resounding no; Horror is neither exclusive nor rare – not in experience nor the storytelling. And perhaps the key as to why we seem at a creative and Literary stalemate in our modern writings is ensconced in the significance of “how” – in having fashioned this odd, culturally exclusive bubble – all of our best efforts have resulted in a kind of genetically compromised inbreeding of ideas. In our hand-over-fist attempts to understand what we think Horror formula is or should be, perhaps it is we who have become the victims of our own intent to discredit others.

This means our contemporary problems (especially in American Horror) may well have grown in its isolated and lonesome Petrie dish to be not only about who is telling what stories, but about the future of the American side of the genre. We are unquestionably at a Literary and creative impasse.

And we had better start asking what happens when all of the 1970s-1980s bestselling authors stop writing. What exactly will we do then?

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Robbing Horror From Other Cradles

At a time when we are unwilling or unable to create the kind of Horror that excites our readers and grows our constituency, we need an infusion of original DNA – the kind of DNA that descends from folklore and fairy tales – the gritty stuff of childhood fears. And we need to do this shamelessly – borrowing from those older traditions tucked neatly into vague heritages because while we were being all puffy and proud about our modern sophistication and electronic gadgets, what we call The Old World was still telling scary tales of things that go bump in the night. And people who grow up with those storytelling traditions clearly have a thing or two to teach us about where we all (and our monsters) come from.

For those of us on this side of the pond, it’s time to climb out of the creative box we have put ourselves in – from what we call our genre to who writes in it. We have no proprietary rights here; just because some smarty-pants marketing department decided to print the word “Horror” on the spines of countless Western paperbacks in the 1970’s does not mean it is the correct name to call our genre, or the one with which the rest of the world concurs. Nor does it mean that the rest of the world interprets “Horror” in the same way as we do in the West.

Why has our Horror all become one-dimensional? Homogenous and flat? Because “we” have decided what formulas constitute Horror, all to the denigration of other traditions of storytelling.

Yet isn’t that where we got our ideas about Horror in the first place? It’s time we confessed the truth: the West did not invent Horror. We may have perfected a branch of the tree, but we are not the whole of it. Our roots go much, much deeper and come from afar…

And every person who came here brought a little piece of that with them.

We cannot claim to not-know this entirely. Our genre’s historic use of Orientalism and racism to further heighten a presumed white reader’s fears or to elevate the exotic mystery and exploit the willing ignorance of a class of readers groomed to see themselves perfected in an ethnocentric mirror is no different in Horror than in any other genre. But in Horror, it has fast become this almost-necessary ingredient we are directed to mimic. Because we have not been able to “move the Literary needle” in American Horror since Lovecraft, that is where we are directed to learn about how to write the good stuff.

But what if we don’t want to because no one does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft, and most importantly, because the rest of us are no longer as threatened by different peoples or cultures? What happens when dread and fear turn away from dimly lit rural areas with secret histories to vibrancy, exploration and inclusion? What happens to Lovecraft mimicry?

What happens when we have outgrown that narrow Worldview?

Today most of us are able to acknowledge the pinch of this and dash of that from other cultures and folkways that have driven the more muted successes that line the cages of our genre and we are increasingly curious about it. From Japanese filmmakers to Russian folklore, we are intrigued by the monsters some part of us always suspected were watching us from the shadows. More importantly, we are starting to ask what happens when in following the Lovecraft-enamored lead of the Western Horror Establishment we continue to drown out international and “minority”- voiced Horror, displacing it as an anomaly or christening it Other-relevant “Literature” to keep it at a safe distance.

Horror should never be “safe.” And trying to hold onto Lovecraft and the singular whiteness of Horror is contributing to the lack of historical awareness so necessary in our genre.

It so reminds me of that unfortunate music fan who suggested that Paul McCartney was lucky to receive a “break” from Kanye West and might someday make something of himself “Cuz Kanye just handed this guy a career”… (not a shining moment.)

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Why don’t we KNOW where we come from? And isn’t it possible that this very tone deafness is one of the contributing causes to the endless cookie cutter “plateauing” of scary in the genre as we know it?

If we really dare to look at the Horror genre’s origins, we will find the richest veins in folk and fairy tales from our Old Countries – the very things an “advanced” and “civilized” culture likes to mock. But in the dark of the night, isn’t that where Horror gets under our skin uninvited, rummaging about and prickling our skins? Does it really matter where the scary images come from if they are coming after us?

It’s time we started researching the rest of the world’s stories – rediscovering some, and hearing others for the first time. Because these are the stories and the traditions we carry with us as we move through the world, colliding with each other. Of course this means learning about other people, how they live and think. It means letting ourselves sink into other life ways in order to find the Horror we crave.

And it means allowing ourselves to be corrected… To acknowledge real history, real traditions, and the real Peoples who live them intimately. It also means admitting to ourselves that we live in bastardized, cannibalized times. We bring fragments of Horrors from our lineages, and those halflings collide unceremoniously with Things That Were Already Here. Isn’t it time we exploited our own ignorance? Paid the price of our own desire to minimize our once hidden roots? Our personal roots?

We don’t need sacred Indian Burial Grounds or gypsy curses to amp up our Horrors… we have our own sins making monsters in urban factories right now.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read those first-hand accounts and value them for themselves…to inspire and remind us that we have our own stories if we will just stop and look. It helps us to see how other people tell these tales, to “spin” our vocabulary, to look askew at what we cannot see directly. We need to, not only for ourselves, but because of the obvious: we no longer live in a vacuum no matter how many walls we endeavor to build. We need to see that even Lovecraft would have a hard time being Lovecraft today.

And is it really such a bad thing – really – to stop “using” other peoples whose customs we don’t know to scare our readers with? Because in a global economy, there are no secrets – not really. If a writer makes something up for the benefit of plot, he or she will ultimately be exposed for the careless or arrogantly conceived error and deservedly so. But there are wondrous stories to be had, to savor just as they are – cultural accents and all.

Of course, this means getting out of our comfort zone. But that is the nature of Horror, isn’t it? And haven’t we learned that wondrous things await if only by way of Japan and its gift of Godzilla, and its ghost traditions pushing into our own culture by way of films like Ringu (The Ring)and The Grudge and the world of Manga?

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 It’s All About Language and Culture and Horror Underfoot

While it’s hard to believe that modern music fans don’t always know the names of the bands and musicians that shaped the genre they are in, we of the Horror genre should not throw stones. We are doing the same thing right now, oblivious to our own genre history, crashing about like the proverbial bull in the china shop looking for a new mythos when we don’t even know the last one. We don’t learn our genre history, which squares so nicely with no one teaching it to us. We just keep clinging to the Lovecraft life raft, even if it happens to be the Titanic.

How long before we have a Paul McCartney-Kanye West moment of our own? You realize it is more likely to happen the smaller we make our universe, right?

We like to think that the Horror galaxy revolves around a white, Christian, English-speaking sun – because the little of “everything” we know tells us this…

Yet we could not be more wrong. All of our best tales descend from our Old World roots…and that must mean that out there somewhere is the motherlode of scary… It’s not, after all, like we haven’t drank from that well before – Horror was seeded in our early days of human history, and we have carried remnants of it out into our new and ever changing world with countless diasporas. Yet we tend to not use this personal version of Horror DNA. Instead we look askew at stories presented by “other” countries, often in “other” languages.

Up to this moment, we have hidden behind our world dominance. We have blatantly bragged that those who want to be heard need to speak the way we want to hear language. We don’t read foreign authors, we don’t like names or place names we cannot pronounce, cities we cannot picture, weather that does not mirror our own. We also don’t like the pools of secrecy we ourselves create when we push groups of humanity into the shadows of our entitlement and the people there speak words we don’t know the full meaning of. This is true whether such people on the margins speak Spanish or Black English or something from the Middle East.

Let’s just admit it: we are control freaks. We have a driving need to understand the nuance of every word we read, every meaning implied. And even though in the Horror genre, that can be an absolute necessity to “getting” it, there is still more to our aversion to works that come from “Other” places…

From International writers writing in other languages, to works written that speak of other traditions and cultural importances… we dislike the feeling that there are secrets being coded for certain readers. We feel that way about slang and inner city lingo as surely as we stink eye the immigrants speaking Spanish in the lunch room. Yet we need to get beyond our own Lovecraftian self-importance… we are missing out on some great storytelling – the kind that sends you to your own keyboard and pokes the Muse.

And alas, we are going to have to work for it…because language has its own cultural complications— the most obvious being when dealing with those which are “not-English.”

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One of the biggest problems for international writers is being read by English Speakers. We are less likely to be bilingual than most other cultures, assured as we are that it is English that will continue to dominate everything that matters on the world stage.

And what this means is that we take our arrogances into the Literature we read… We not only fully expect to read things in our language, but we judge it differently even when it is delivered thusly. We underestimate what it means for a work to be translated.

In fact, we all too often misinterpret a writer’s talent by the fluency of the translator. However sometimes translators are “functional” but not “artistic.” Where all writers need translators with the eyes and ears and imaginations of poets, all too often we get novels that instead of reading like Dostoevsky, read like Google. This is due to cost, availability of a good translator, and having someone who can judge the finished product properly. Once one leaves their native language, this can be a real challenge – for writers and editors.

This is a real problem. The author needs a fluent translator to make their work accessible in other languages – languages they likely do not speak. And because they do not speak it, they cannot easily judge when a translator is fluent in both languages – fluent enough to tap into nuance and vocabulary yet still capture both those necessary interpretations as well as the voice of the author.

Translation matters, whether we are talking editing an inner city/urban work or a foreign one. And just as we ascribe proofreading errors to writers and their talent, we associate a translation with the quality of the original work if not the literal intelligence of the author. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth: nuance of the native tongue once lost results in a confusion of original intent, of the poetry of the prose and disagreement about what the original text meant.

 

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You: a Ghost Story – an example of how translation should work FOR the work…

 

So we have to expect this kind of disparity to happen in translations of works that come from other language traditions. We have to be patient…flexible.

But we also have problems with writers who use what we have been institutionally guided to consider “bad” “incorrect” or “flawed” English…the most noticeable of which has been “Black, Regional, or Urban” English. In fact, we have the exact same problem in native speakers of English when it comes to interpreting and accepting slang, and cultural diversity within a work.

While sometimes we cannot connect to the story because we are not the intended audience, it is a fact that we tend to shy away from stories that involve language we are unable to “decode”…

Sometimes it is because we simply cannot pick up on the important nuances, the cues, the double entendre – the dog whistles. Never mind that this is because we are used to our own dog whistles…We feel shut out in the same way people from other cultures feel shut out when reading about ours. We simply have gotten used to the idea that being “top dog” in the publishing of Horror, it was “everyone else’s” job to understand the nuances of what we meant.

The shoe always pinches when it is on the other foot…But pinching is a sign that there is something alive in the shoe – that maybe the shoe is wrong, not the foot. We need to have the patience to unwrap the mysterious gift. Yet we have been institutionalized right out of the curiosity.

We bristle for example when non-Christian references are in the stories, unless we can give them the appropriate “Lovecraft spin” where exotic means “sinister” and “threatening”… And if the character does not look and act like us, we feel summarily “excluded”… as if “our” genre has been pirated…invaded. This is one reason why women wrote pulp and men wrote Literature back in the day…and why the inference remains a ghost on the battlefield of diversity in Horror today.

Because “today” we are excluding Horror from all over – including right under foot. We have been taught that reading should be easy and entertaining. We have forgotten that reading – especially Literature with its references to history and socio-economics and tyranny and justice– is work…

Publishers “get” this – that we are now not only lazy but expected to remain content to be lazy from here on – and clearly consider that this is far too complicated an issue to fix. So instead of new and exciting and different Horror, we have Horror from “Other” countries and cultures being farmed out to other genres or marketed as Literary statements – fodder for Critical Thinkers and Lit-lovers to decipher and ruminate upon. The face value of the story-telling is simply dismissed.

The very idea that Horror should include more than monsters is being banished while having the Bible of Lovecraft waved in our faces. Talk about contradiction. No wonder American Horror writers are all-too-often writing peculiarly ineffective and vacant fiction…

Banishing all works by “Others” which doesn’t carry a pre-approved Lovecraftian exploitation of fearing the same “Others” only re-confirms our suspicion that this makes these works not really Horror…Because Horror comes in only one color and one flavor: vanilla.

We further conjecture that all American Horror should be non-threatening and easy-to-digest, even when salaciously gory. And as the market for Horror tightens, the belief is becoming reinforced – making the whole idea that we all should be writing in some way like Lovecraft while being all pulpy and writing fast moving, two-dimensional action figure prose right into that very pair of cement shoes dragging the whole genre to the soggy bottom…

We have a tendency to decide that we are better off to reject works which require a bit of decoding.

We don’t want to think and we don’t want to go outside our comfort zone. But isn’t that exactly the price of admission? Isn’t that the very essence of Horror?

We have done this with African Americans for decades. We shrink from the use of Black English because we are just not sure what to do with it. Is it a dialect? Is it just “bad” English? Is it a regionalism? Slang?

And what about regionalism? Does a Southern character or a Southern accent make the Horror Southern Gothic and Literature because we don’t want to work to understand it in Horror? Why is Horror only Horror if the dialogue fits in a comic book balloon?

Why does it matter in Literature? How many Cockney accents have we navigated in English Literature because it was part of the story? Part of the setting? The time-and-place of historical value?

Experts are still in debate over it. And meanwhile editors everywhere – especially in traditional publishing – are at a loss as to how to edit such fiction. It is far easier to call “Black” and “Other” writing niche and reject the work, or pronounce it too burdened with Literary elements because most likely it will take African American and “Other”editors to edit such works submitted for publication…editors from the culture the story comes from in order to edit the right things out and clarify the things that need to stay in.

Decisions have to be made as to whether the language in the work is supposed to (pardon the pun) add “color” to the language, to orient characters and setting, but also as to whether or not it is also meant to exclude certain readers not in the intended audience, or to educate them into a different culture and viewpoint.

This is not as easy as it would seem. And this affects international and national works as quickly as it effects regional U.S. ones…

For one thing, we have been taught that language is either right or wrong in its execution. Yet we have so many regional subcultures in the English language alone we should be familiar with the fact that such “color” when added to Literature seats that work firmly in a time or place – it becomes part of setting and character. The only good excuse for exclusion on these grounds is when the work cannot be in some way “accessible” and its meaning appreciated by outsiders to a storytelling degree.

For example, when a work comes from another culture, country or language, the author or translator should allow for some “redundant” coaching… some of the native language should stay in the story – reminding the reader where it is coming from.

Example: “Mira,” said Pablo, “Look.” (Mira means “look.. And we learned something from the redundancy without losing the author’s proficiency of language.)

But there are also other cultural things that need explanation for new and “reverse-Other” readers.

Example: “When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname but refuses to use it, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke’s name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as ‘Are you listening to me?’” (From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake)

(Here we have learned about the character, her husband and her culture…yet presented in a way that does not offend the outsider or someone from that culture because it adds color to the prose.)

This is how good writing and proper editing is done. It is not the job of the reader to figure things out, but the job of the writer to draw us in – to make us want to learn more and to learn something by way of the story in spite of ourselves. And it is the job of the editor to help us all get there, especially in translation and even in our own language.

Those of us who like Horror already speak a second language – the language of our genre. Most of us who like Horror like it for the escapism – and the one predictable trope that never, ever changes: not the one about white creation myths, but the one that proves time and again, through ghost and monster and sheer coincidence that justice will prevail through the impersonal and savage law of nature because we are none of us innocent.

In the world of Horror where cross-pollination is key, we need different voices – ones whose different cultures or ways of speaking frame Horror in a new light, cast shadows in familiar yet peculiar angles…

Sometimes I think it must just feel like too much work to resolve in the eyes of traditional publishing – too much work for too much of a gamble…And that is exactly how we keep winding up with the same voices in Horror and Literature, all speaking the same way…It’s how we lost our DNA, our sense of direction and originality nested in our commonality.

So take a minute. Peruse the following list of writers from all over – including a few right here in these United States whose work was probably labelled a bit “niche.” You want new Horror? Original Horror?

Start here. And yes, there are Americans on it – either from or influenced by somewhere else, and in one case from traditions outside the mainstream but homegrown nonetheless…These are voices of different cultures…

Get your crucifixes… because these writers are the future of Horror – if we will only open our eyes and read.

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Horror Authors Unseen – A List From Here to Everywhere Else

Asa Nomani (Japan) Now You’re One of Us

Otsuichi (Japan) Goth

Asamatsu Ken (Japan) Queen of K’n-Yan

Mariko Koike (Japan) The Graveyard Apartment

Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland) I Remember You

John Ajvide Lindquist (Sweden) Let the Right One In

Karin Tidbeck (Sweden) Amatka

Eden Royce (African American/Gullah and Southern Gothic influence) Spook Lights, Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings –YA coming Summer 2020

Tananarive Due (African American/Nigerian influence) My Soul To Keep

Violet Kupersmith (Vietnamese American) The Frangipani Hotel

Stephen Graham Jones (Native American) Mapping the Interior

David Bowles (Mexican American) Chupacabra Vengeance

Jeremias Gotthelf (Germany) The Black Spider

Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) You Should Have Left

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) Hex

John Harwood (Australia) The Ghost Writer

Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan-Australian) Springtime, a Ghost Story

Simone St. James (Canada) The Haunting of Maddie Clare

Cherie Dimaline (Canadian First Nations) The Marrow Thieves

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Canadian-Mexican) Certain Dark Things

Samuel Marolla (Italy) Black Tea and Other Tales

Giorgia de Maria (Italy) The Twenty Days of Turin

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Fever Dream

Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/Mexican American) Pan’s Labyrinthe

Luis Abbadie (Mexico) El código secreto del Necronomicón(The Secret Code of the Neconomicon)

Julio Cortezar (Argentina) Tomada House

Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) Demonia (and Other Stories)

J.F. Gonzalez (Spanish American) Clickers

Carmen Maria Machado (Cuban American) Her Body and Other Parties

Andres Barba (Spain) Such Small Hands

Zhou Haohui (China) Valley of Terror

Han Kang (South Korea) The Vegetarian

Rene Depestre (Haiti) Hadriana in All My Dreams

Carolina Sanin (Columbia) The Children

Sadegh Hedayat (Iran) The Blind Owl

Otessa Mosfegh (Croatian Iranian) Eileen

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (Egypt) Beyond Nature

Ania Ahlborn (Polish American) Within These Walls

Anna Starobinets (Russia) The Recrudescence of the Cold

Tony Vilgotsky (Russia) Eye of Satan (aka Warriors of the Church)

Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Russia) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales

Nuzo Onoh (Nigerian British) The Reluctant Dead

Amos Tutuola ( Nigeria) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

 

 

Writers in Exile: Is the Horror Genre Killing Itself?


We keep hearing how everything is ok.

Despite the bodies being carried out the back door, we keep hearing how the Horror magazine market is viable, and traditional book publishers and agents want new writers, and editors are overwhelmed by submissions on every front (sometimes too many good ones to publish them all, and sometimes as proof that indeed just anyone thinks they can write Horror).

We also keep hearing about the many ways we as Horror writers can spend our limited monies and emotional currency on writing contests, conventions, and buying “how-to” products, doling out reader’s fees and professional club memberships like we are made of money…or how we can become overnight successes publishing ourselves – all of this while countless rejections and the narrowing of submission guidelines are shoving many writers into other genres.

These are mixed messages. All of us are confused.

Are we being rejected because of our Craft, our stories, or both? Or are we being sacrificed to the gods of precision branding in this age of one-size-does-not-fit-all commercialism? Is our Establishment trying to exercise control over which direction we are heading, and using the few bestselling authors we have left to psychologically fund their efforts?

We are seeing a narrowing of focus in the Horror genre. We are seeing an overemphasis on the Literary while hunting for bestseller stories told however they get the book sold.

It seems like what they really mean is not that they want new writers or new Horror, but apparently that if they can’t unearth a new Poe, they want a new Stephen King…a Reserve Stephen King, just in case.

Because clearly we are caught in a crisis – an identity crisis where we don’t know if Horror is whatever sells, or what some editor says is Literary enough.

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Edgar Allan Poe – yours, mine, Mystery’s and ours…

What Happens in Horror is Not Staying in Horror

If we look at the history of Horror after the Horror Boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, what we find is a parade of authors escorted to the borders of the genre and unceremoniously dismissed as no longer Horror writers. Sadly, this means we have lost a lot of Horror and a lot of Horror Literature. It means a lot of former Horror writers no longer self-identify as Horror writers. And for others left to contemplate their exile in their new found no-man’s-land, it means a bitter severance of the artistic relationship, hurt feelings, and even disgust.

Why did we lose writers like Clive Barker? Why did we never embrace a Roald Dahl or H.H. Munro? Why were we so brazen to banish Tanith Lee? To ignore Jane Yolen? Or to keep Terri Windling as no more than a casual mention?

This Weird charnel house we are living in seems to have been built on an earlier premise that Horror (not being a “real” or Literary genre) was instead a collection of sometimes Literary writing written by authors from Literary Fiction – in other words, great writers slumming it in the genres.

And in many cases, it was somewhat true – writers like Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne DuMaurier, H.H. Munro (Saki), Joyce Carol Oates, Louisa May Alcott, Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Cormac McCarthy, Umberto Eco, Orson Welles, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Toni Morrison – are today not considered exclusively (if ever) Horror writers. Yet some of their writing places them firmly in our genre as potential providers of canonical works.

The list of such works by these kinds of visiting writers always grows. So why it is so hard for us to look within the genre itself and get a clear picture of what Horror is today – of the writers growing the genre right now? Is it possible the answer is because we don’t welcome our own writers in the genre unless they fit a certain “profile”? Unless they support a certain kind of genre branding as orchestrated by our own Establishment?

Why do we stop at the Weird Writers, sighing and swooning as we look backward to the Good Old Days of Horror? Are we so grieving the loss of those writers that we cannot see the grown children right in front of us?

Horror is an artful mix of different genres and different writers; it should never be so “formula” that it cannot be original, that it cannot display diversity. We should never be willing to bend to a brand.

This is the nature of Horror – it cross-pollinates and is cross-pollinated. We are a little bit country, and little bit rock-and-roll. We are as likely to welcome face-hugging aliens as we are to embrace dastardly lords of the manor who exploit vulnerable orphans, to feed annoying nannies to a horror in a garden shed or drag us through the savage mental decline of a woman trapped in postpartum depression. Horror is about the human condition – all of it in its absolute terror.

So why is it that we are apparently having problems with identity right now?

Who is imposing that identity, changing and tweaking it like a moral authority?

And do they have that right?

We have to ask these questions and find the answers, because we have lost control of what is happening in our genre – mostly because of what is also happening as a result of the Technology Revolution. And what started as the bleeding off of midlist authors in the mid 1980’s has become a new marketing trend of spinning off any and all authors who are not deemed – by someone – to be “proper” Horror.

The result is that it is looking like “no one” besides Mr. King is really writing Horror.

We have “perp-walked” writers who refuse to conform right into other genres, giving them up like we have so many to spare. Yet what we do have is clearly a lot of writers who are all but steered into “writing in the vein of” past icons:  we adulate Lovecraft and the Weird Writers to the extent that the message being communicated is that the Weird was the last time we had great, Literary writers in the genre. And that suggests the Weird is all that we were aspiring to become… that at the very moment we have reached that long-fought-for pinnacle of success – actual Literary Critical recognition – we have nothing left in the tank.

I don’t buy it. Our own genre history suggests otherwise, subgenre building on subgenre…Why is Weird any different? Why didn’t we learn our lesson from that period? Why aren’t we interested in seeing what ALL writers in the genre can concoct? To see what direction we will all lurch next in a burst of rabid creativity? Why aren’t we mining pulp? Experimenting? Publishing Horror? Connecting and communicating with our fans?

More importantly, why are we so eager to expel writers who are not seeming to stay within “approved” Horror guidelines, and exactly who has determined those guidelines?

One thing is for sure: it is NOT the Literary Critic who is doing this.

But the Literary Critic IS ABOUT TO…bwa ha ha…

Hiding rebel authors in other genres is not going to work – although it may certainly slow down the Critic in finding them. The Critic will decide who is Horror genre and who is not.

Is someone running about, clearing the road in front of the bus? And what exactly is their right to do so?

Take a deep breath. We are going to have to lean backward to see how we got here.

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When Booms Collapse

When Horror went off the rails in the 1990’s, it went amidst turmoil in the publishing industry itself. We cannot dismiss the importance of the impact of the Technology Revolution on our genre, because we were among the first to see cutbacks in publication and a rethinking of marketing strategy. The sudden lack of air in the room meant that all of the machinery that had sustained our genre and the publishing Boom of the 1970’s-1980’s ground to a halt. We lost a lot of publishers, imprints, magazines, editors, and writers at a time we had also already begun losing fans.

Some said it was proof that the Baby Boom generation which had propelled Horror in those two Power Decades was at last “aging out”… that we were “growing up” and moving on to more adult subjects, at long last disenchanted with scary stories because we had begun actually living them.

It was also theorized that Horror had “bottomed out”… that there were no more stories to tell, and no one left to read them. Slasher fiction and visceral Horror were offered up as examples for the creative desert, and the genre clearly began to struggle with an identity crisis.

But this is a tale of dominoes falling…

At the same time, Literary Critics had fallen out of favor. The constant railing against the really pulpy writing that came out of the publishing Boom had caused academic panic – the previously reciprocal relationship between publishers and Critics and editors seemed to have broken down, and the search for Literature seemed to have been abandoned in favor of the blockbuster bestseller. The constant Critical rants against authors who the public cherished and who the publishers couldn’t afford to continue to do business without lit fires everywhere. Hostilities broke out, insults were standard fare, and the public became increasing estranged from what the Critics were saying.

As Critics disappeared from newsprint and public view to be replaced with reviewers who thought more like us, we didn’t realize that the fracture of the relationship was a harbinger of troubled times in education, publishing and the field of Literary Criticism. But it was.

So the Literary Critics retreated into their ivory castles to try and decipher what exactly had gone wrong in contemporary writing that we did not seem to be producing any modern Literature…as well as why no one seemed to care.

This retreat was a coincidental consequence curiously timed with sudden cutbacks and restructuring of our educational system, which shifted into high gear to focus on standardized tests and herd high school graduates away from vocational schools and into promised-to-be-forever careers as wranglers of word processing and computer data entry operators. With the internet looming, the predecessors to the online world invaded our workspaces with word processors and data programs to the detriment of language arts and the Humanities in general.

What this all means is that while we were becoming cogs, we lost traditional publishing venues, editorial expertise, Literary Critical feedback, and the kind of education that taught writing, reading, and Literature all at the same time. It was a perfect storm.

While the Literary Critics were off reinventing themselves (simultaneously discovering that the reason no Literature was being found was because the Literary Critical Theories used to determine Literature and created for writers like Shakespeare and Homer, were not broad enough to accommodate actual changes that happen in living language…they then had to create new Theories and recreate themselves), Horror was also making discoveries.

During the last hundred years, the argument so well made by writers like Poe and Lovecraft that Horror was at least sometimes Literature had begun making inroads into Literary Critical circles. And at the precise moment we all had surrendered to the thought we would never gain recognition from Literary Critics as a genre we began to draw that exact attention. Critics were looking at Horror – largely because of that very group of Baby Boomers who had pushed the genre into new heights of production, sales, and attention during the Horror and Publishing Boom. It was those very Boomers who were now amongst the Critics asking questions like “why isn’t Stephen King Literature?”

We had moles. We had champions. And all of a sudden, we had the ear of New Literary Critics…and Horror became Literary-Elect. This means that for the next few decades, Literary Critics will begin the formation of Horror as a Literary genre. And if all of us who love it are right, it will not be found wanting. But this also means that Literary Critics have to begin committing facts to paper: they have to look at enough works to contrive a Canon of works – works that are Horror works, foundational works, works that define and shape the genre.

They will need to compile characteristics, formulas, subgenres, tropes, conventions, and terms that are standardized.

It also means that they will have to determine who our genre Canon authors are (the ones who write Horror most, if not all of the time – and whose works clearly define the genre) and those who sometimes write canon works (writers who visit our genre, write a tale or two, a poem, anything that is so full of Horror DNA it is part of the evolution of the genre – that it cannot be excluded… and then go away).

There will be lists, and debates, and arguments. Those lists, debates, and arguments will define, establish, and support proposed criteria and standards in the genre.

(Again, hint to English BA graduates: we need Literary Critics. Get your master’s degree. Get your Ph.D. and be part of an historical moment in Literary Criticism and the Horror genre!)

All of this means that the game is on.

For new writers in the Horror genre, it means you are walking a knife’s edge. For example, it has not yet been determined that pulp will or will not be included as a subgenre (although I personally believe it should be a subgenre and held to formula within the Literary Horror genre).

So as a writer you now need to know what Literature is and if you want to try to write it or purposefully choose NOT to write it. If you fall anywhere on the cracks, Critics will likely rule you out; you will need to commit if it is their attention you want, and becoming a canon author your dream. And that means you are also going to have to self-educate, because with the educational emphasis on STEM-as-Life, you will not receive educational support in the way it is most needed. To learn how to write with Literary elements, playing Russian Roulette with submission and editors is not going to be enough. This is not an area for guessing, but for lifelong study.

At the very moment we have the Critic’s attention, we are not at our best. We are not even able to get our work out there if it were worthy. We have saboteurs and empire builders all in a time when we have absolutely no access to Craft that is not attached to financially motivated teachers, publishers, and editors… at a time when finding publication and then readers is as random as squashing your novel in a wine bottle and tossing it out to sea.

It means we need to get our ship in order.

But it also means that whoever is trying to create a catalog of published Horror for the Critic to see clearly doesn’t understand Literary Criticism. (And isn’t that amusing?)

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https://observer.com/2015/12/forget-the-leftovers-here-are-6-shows-that-deserve-an-in-costume-campaign/

 

Writing. In Other Genres.

For decades we have been losing authors to other genres – mostly to Fantasy, but many to Science Fiction and Psychological Thriller.

Why?

Just who is threatened by our rejection of trying to continue the Weird and being weary of Zombies or Vampires? Who is threatened by fairies of the Unseelie Court or the djinn of the 1001 Nights, or the killer who may or may not be dead? The insane who may or may not be crazy? The alien no bigger than a virus?

We have to grow or we die. We have to experiment with other genre elements in order to infuse new life into worn tropes. It’s just how it’s done….

The idea that a writer who uses elements from other genres belongs SOLELY in that genre is a cheap shot and an ignorant one. It is evidence that we have ceased to understand what makes Horror, Horror – especially if “experts” in the genre cannot or will not explain it to us with diagrams, pie charts, and standard formulas…

If no one in our illustrious Establishment will deign to step forward and claim the responsibility for defining what is “acceptable” Horror writing in the genre – no one who will go out on the limb to nail all definitions down – then I vote we write like the wind until the Literary Critic does the job.

Because it IS their job…

Exiling writers someone doesn’t like for whatever reason translates into a cheap power grab.

It is also evidence that someone is trying to dash ahead of the Literary Critic to create that body of work…to direct the Critic’s attention to what is perceived to be “better” Horror.

We’ve done it with Stephen King – demanding that any Critic who writes Criticism about the genre dedicate some analysis to our best-selling author. But Critics are not having it. This is because Theories are still being formed, the author is still alive and working, and sales figures are not an indicator of Literature. King will be more fairly analyzed long after his demise, long after Critics who know anything about him die. It’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile Literary Criticism is compromised not only by the sheer volume of works awaiting Criticism, but a lack of enough Critics to do the job of analysis, and Theories to be fully developed and applied. They have neither the time nor the manpower to pander to “expert” opinion…

This acceptance and analysis of Horror as a genre is all going to take time. Lifetimes of time.

But when those Literary Critics start to look at works, they will also be looking at those cross-pollinators.

That means for example that Clive Barker may yet be named a foundational author of Horror (I believe he is) and that many of his fantasy-in-exile works will also be included because of the dark elements. But it also means that Charles Dickens will be there on our lists with a work or two (those Christmas Carols no doubt!) as a writer who sometimes supplied canon works… and so we may also find Alan Dean Foster with Alien…even J.K. Rowling…

It’s only fair.

And it is Literarily normal….

Poe will be in the Horror canon, the Mystery canon, the Poetry canon, the Western Literary Canon. He is ours. He is theirs. This is why Literature is Literature – it services many genres and many needs.

So there are contemporary Horror writers in Thriller, in Fantasy, in Science Fiction, in Mystery – heck, even in Romance where we started! Why don’t we get to see their stories? Why don’t we get to write those stories ourselves? And who bloody well cares if they aren’t “pure enough” Horror for someone’s tastes? Neither was Lovecraft, once upon a time…

It’s time we stopped exiling authors and started welcoming them back into the fold.

It’s time we started rebuilding our genre for the benefit of both the genre and the Literary Critic.

It’s time we stopped stifling creativity and censoring perfectly good writers out of Horror – some of whom were perfectly great, even if it was for just a story now and then.

We still have fans. Some of us are left over from that great Boom. And guess what? We want our Clive Barkers back… We want our Tanith Lees… We want our C.J. Cherryhs and our Jane Yolens. Our Neil Gaimans and our Raymond Feists… Give’em back. Lure them back and I’ll bet you’ll see a new “boom” of readership…

Seriously. Stop trying to manufacture our trends and control our writers.

We can do way better than genre suicide. And there are a lot of us out there trying to write some good, scary stuff…because we want to READ it ourselves…

Horror happens. It is organic. And it belongs to us, no matter what section it gets filed in.

 

Tanith Lee: Why Horror’s Future Depends on Subgenres — A Women In Horror Month Tribute (Part 2)


What this entire “episode” with Tanith Lee has taught me is that our genre needs to grow up…

We have enshrined the period of time which most purely and evidently exemplifies its natural growth from its original Literary DNA – the period we call The Weird. But is that time representative of The End of originality in the genre, or was it a simple (though awesome) creative burst born of circumstance, of writers who could inform each other’s work via education, exposure, or direct contact and support…and then died with them?

I say that like the Horror Boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the period of Weird was an exception – a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime explosion of insight and creativity built on a contrived and flawed premise that men write more and better Horror. And it being over means nothing more than the rest of us go back to the drawing board – after a cigarette, maybe – but back.

But it also means our genre needs to be attentive to the next creative wave, the next influencers, because the future most likely is NOT Weird. Writers like Tanith Lee who opened a wound and let it bleed out its truth along with its poison are no less formative and influential than the Weird writers. For better or worse they, too, reveal our innermost fears, our prejudices, our imagined terrors. It is because a writer like Tanith Lee wrote about gender issues in the exact way that she did, that we have welcomed other authors who toy with other previously “forbidden” subjects and threaten to open even bigger cans of worms. We have so much further to go. Why are our knuckles being rapped and our heads being forcibly turned to worship the last mutually acknowledged Horror greats? Why are we only worshipping the works of primarily white men?

Our genre needs rebellious writers – writers like Lee who rebel by their natures. We need writers who push envelopes and test our tolerance, opening the very Literary doors we claim to want to pull from their hinges. Horror must grow and change to survive. We must embrace those Literary issues we claim we want. And we must defend them even when they are uncomfortable or unsavory.

We can start by acknowledging the contributions of Tanith Lee.

 

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When Horror Is Literature

When we look at Horror history, we tend to see a lot of homogenization…

This is partly because the Horror writing community was smaller, more influenced by each other and what publishers would or would not publish – a social currency owned by the white male majority. But it was also because Horror has been patriarchically dominated for most of it publication history. That earliest of publishing booms which happened at the turn of the 19th century segregated our writers into two camps – one struggling to climb out of pulp into the Literary via books and reputable newspapers and magazines (led by men like Poe and Lovecraft); and one sentenced to cheaper pulp magazines where “women’s writing” was destined for women’s consumption only and made of less-permanent materials as its lesser value warranted.

This, was the true meaning, origin and purpose of what we call pulp: Critically deemed substandard written content meant to be read in the moment and tossed away because it had no Literary or relevant news value. This is where women’s Horror often wound up, along with Horror from men who might fall into disfavor by choosing to write for women, or to write the far-fetched, the unacceptable…the sensational…

So with fewer women’s writings surviving, and even fewer finding any measure of publishing or Critical success, is it any wonder that we were all left to assume that only white men wrote Horror, and the best of our genre carried a kind of identifiable, formulaic content, character and interest?

And when we look back at seminal works, why are we surprised that not only do those works have a cachet of coming from a narrow, homogenous type of writer, but that they also demonstrate a clear Critical relation to each other?

That these predominantly white male writers seem so much to have created a concise body of work is no mistake: it is what happens when writers are isolated in a singular pool where ideas are freely exchanged and respected. It is not unlike a school of writers with the same teachers and influences – because in many ways that’s what they were; writers whose successes taught each other. Yet they were also representative of a moment in time.

Each of us has one. Some of us use it. Some of us just write to see what happens.

For our genre right now to continue to look back with heavy sighs and great longing for the likes of Poe and Lovecraft is telling. It is not that those works are not worthy, but that we have mistaken a creative burst from the late 19th and early 20th century as the thing Horror was destined to be – ALL it was destined to be.

Talk about disappearing every writer that comes after…

When we consider that many of our early writers – especially Poe and Lovecraft – spent a good deal of time arguing the case of Horror being Literary to very astute and stubborn Literary Critics of the time, it comes as a disappointment to see that at the precise moment our genre has won the attention of those same Critics and our editors are hoping to groom more Literary elements in genre writing, we are stepping over authors writing about those very Literary issues.

We step over them like they are poisonous.

Is it because we are aware of how tenuous the attentions of publishers are right now? Because we are afraid we cannot risk losing a single dollar in sales? Because we are wary of alienating readers and fans whose idea of Literature is represented by a bunch of dead writers, or “issues” we have a predisposition to prefer? Is it because neither editors, publishers, nor our base has any stomach for diving head first into the pool of ugly modern issues? Or because they don’t have the guts?

Are we afraid we will “become” gay, or Muslim, or womanish, or poor, or immersed in wars, or become unChristian if we accidentally or on purpose read about those things? What exactly are we afraid of catching? Of discovering?

Horror has always had Literary DNA. Horror is always about the human condition and how we interpret and treat each other. That includes with regard to unsavory issues – especially unsavory issues.

Yet in contemporary Horror, we have a Literary desert. And it feels perpetrated. Orchestrated.

Hidden away within this whole mysterious disappearance of Tanith Lee thing are these two important questions:

Do we in the Horror genre have a “problem” with Queer fiction and open gender issues?

Do we demand and then reject Literary subjects, preferring to kill the genre rather than accept new subgenres?

At what point do we stop waiting for a bloom from the corpse of the Weird writers to rise and save Horror from itself? When do we begin looking at the issues that are disturbing modern writers in general and Horror in particular?

When it is ok to be Tanith Lee?

T2

Any writer who writes utilizing or framing issues of the day – the social, cultural, racial, class, national, religious and historical issues – that writer is potentially writing Literature. Do it often enough and they are Literary. We don’t get to qualify which issues see daylight in a writer’s work. We don’t get to hide the work that scares us.

We don’t get to hide the Tanith Lees. Not even when things are confusing enough without her.

“Her books were often rather directly queer and feminist in their appropriation of fairy tales, fantastical and perverse worlds and creatures, and narrative tropes. She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber and weird fiction under the related name Judas Garbah, as collected in Disturbed by Her Song and Fatal Women (both available from Lethe Press).” https://www.tor.com/2015/05/29/tanith-lee-a-brief-retrospective/

We live in a push-me, pull-you world. Sometimes we are told that Horror as a genre is all-but-dead. Other times we are told we are in a Renaissance, finally escaping the Dark Ages (which I personally believe we are). But does what happened to Tanith Lee suggest the problem is a little bit of both? I think it does.

Just as Horror from the Weird generation has changed enough to be suspected of being truly dead, Horror as an extension of the 1970s-1980’s Boom is indeed on life support; we have exhausted all of the trite, commercial and exploitative plots and themes those times spun out from that brilliant center of storytelling. We have to be honest: at the end we got sloppy… desperate… cheaply gratuitous. There were very few good novels issuing forth at the same time publishing began to take Technology body blows – and at the same time (it was later theorized) a chunk of our fan base had aged out.

So much began to collapse all at one time: publishers, periodicals, editors, brick-and-mortar bookstores, newspaper with their book review columns, library budgets, education in the Liberal Arts, the field of Literary Criticism… It was a perfect storm. And everyone in the genre in every position in the genre was left to sink or swim, to figure out what it would take to survive. As the bodies began to wash ashore, one thing became crystal clear: what once worked no longer worked. Change was going to have to happen if the genre was going to survive, let alone prosper.

As a genre it was a sobering, pocket-patting moment. There was so much carnage, we resorted to counting our own body parts, too distracted by the fear for our own survival to protest the hemorrhaging of midlist authors and the death songs of editors and publishers everywhere. Some might even venture to say that this is why Tanith Lee seemed to vanish, why publishers ceased to publish her, and why we had nothing left in the tank to protest.

But that is a cop-out. With the Horror ship going down for the third time, we clung to writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Matheson to save us all. That Tanith Lee used to be among that solid-selling list and then suddenly was not is what is noticeable. Even with her cross-genre dabbling, her control of the Gothic left trails of cobwebs from and to our genre. Why let go of a writer who consistently proved an ability to bring home the Horror bacon?

And is it because she started writing about Literary issues before we fully accepted that as a blatant, fully stated goal in Horror? Or was it the issue she chose?

We have to start asking these questions seriously in the genre. Accepting such writings does not make us an LGBT genre. But it does create a necessary subgenre… I mean, if we are going to be really serious about this Literary thing…Because even Literary Critics are – you know, those stuffy snobs we believed for so long were trapped in a Shakespearean tomb? Even THEY caught on… and they are the engine on the Literature train.

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The Rise of Queer Theory: Can We Get There From Here & Why It Matters

Ok. So the subject matter is discomfiting for many. Imagine if you will what it is to live it.

This is why Queer Theory is one of the newest of the New Literary Critical Theories…because it is an actual issue with actual human consequences and casualties; it is the newest twist on our understanding of the human condition. But what is it exactly?

Queer Theory is specifically derivative of women’s studies, gender studies, and LGBT studies. The subsequent origination of what is called Queer Theory is a “new” Literary Critical theory created in the 1990’s to analyze LGBT (or “queer”) Literature – because it goes further and in different directions than its cosmic twin, Feminist Theory. It is called Queer to identify that the area of Literary Criticism dealing with Queer fiction which includes all LGBT concerns. It looks at the cultural and societal and religious roles played in affecting the LGBT population, and all areas of its suppression involving characters, behavior, plot lines or themes. But is it also about the indistinct borderlands in which many of us live.

Tanith Lee was one of our first Horror authors to get there, and to decide it should in some way inform her fiction because it affected her:

“Lee was asked about her recurring theme of ambiguous sexuality. She told the Innsmouth Free Press blog, ‘I think ambiguity intrigues me generally. Not just the hard-drawn line between male and female heterosexuality and lesbian/gay desire, which hard line may waver in the most staunch of the ‘straight’ or the ‘homosexual’ — but the shadings between wickedness and normality, evil and the divine. The state of human life and the god or demon within. The constant internal war that being alive can conjure.’” (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction )

Wickedness and morality. Evil and the divine. Gods and demons. What part of Horror don’t we get?

But of course this new recognition by Critics does not guarantee either popular acceptance, nor that of publishers and editors. In fact, we see a rise of territoriality happening – perhaps some of it genuinely with good intent to protect the integrity of some genres. However, we also need to see the forest for the trees. The existence of an LGBT character – even as protagonist – does not make that story exclusively Queer Fiction. It may be also Queer Fiction. But what if it is also Horror or another genre?

Answer: then it is a subgenre.

Why is that so hard? If the emphasis is so Literary, so unquestionably about the experience of being LGBT, then the overarching and dominant character of the work is LGBT Fiction. But just LGBT characters? Characters wrestling with issues while frolicking with monsters? A way to twist plot or extort confusion? No!

We have maniacs in hockey masks and folk who like carving up lost teenagers for sausage in our genre repertoire. Never once have I heard these described as “suspense” or “thriller” or “psychological” fiction…Is that because it is all gratuitous and two dimensional? Why is cannibalism ok, but an LGBT character a direct sentence to Queer fiction, an expulsion from our genre and many others?

I think sometimes we are not capable of seeing patterns and hierarchy, happy to export any writing with a gender question into its safely contained, separate-but-equal “Literary” box… Just like we do with writers of color, because God knows it happens with other minority-voiced works, which suddenly become “Literary concerns” instead of Horror because “their audience is too small, too niche,” too burdened with social accoutrement…

Again: that is subgenre. But it may still well be Horror.

Why are we jettisoning perfectly good, Literary writers to Theory-driven categories?

Why, indeed, when we are demanding writers master Literary-worthy Craft? Then dinging those who actually dive into Literary issues?

Is our Establishment actually willing to say that if a story has “too much” Literary content, is too “controversial,” that is cannot be Horror? That therefore…pardon me… Horror is not Literature after all, if it “has to” include LGBT issues, race issues, women’s issues, or class issues? That acceptable Horror is contingent upon acceptable norms?

Is that REALLY what you are saying real Horror is? Then aren’t you ALSO saying Poe and Lovecraft were wrong and Literary Critics got it right the first time? And to be Horror is to be hack?

Because if our genre is not willing to grow with our population and its changes and cultural spurts, then its death is inevitable.

Our profiled fan base is shrinking, because the rest of the population is growing on without us.

T4

Still Tanith, After All This Time

Horror is a big genre.

Every once in a while a trend will be born and flower and awe us all. Like the Weird (of which Tanith Lee was once generally considered a writer), those creative bursts humble every one of us – living on in immortality to torment writers and editors and haunt Critics. But they truly are just a burst of light.

We have to learn to let go. We have to be willing to look elsewhere for the next Poe or Lovecraft, for the next creative cluster, probably currently rejected if history is any indication. We cannot abide that. Our genre is not so deep in foundational authors and works that we should allow the ostracism to continue.

What happened with Tanith Lee could be debated, what with all of the Horrors we have been drowning in since Amazon rose from its industry-killing ooze.

But we should not ignore the obvious: the very real possibility that we are afraid of real Literature reframing our genre, that we fear one theory or one issue will rise up to hijack our future and change our audience the way we seem to feel everything we cared about in the world has been changed.

But isn’t that progress? Didn’t we tell all of the minorities and cultures we swept out of our way that in order to flourish ourselves?

Why not then as a genre? Why not go there in American Horror? In British Horror? In world Horror?

When exactly are we ready to shed the mask?

T5

Alas, sexuality remains different, somehow more personally threatening.

“Faces Under Water is an alchemical supernatural thriller, set in a parallel Venice about 1701. Its hero is a very enraged and lost young man who is, in a way, acting as a detective in this water-girt city, and he comes across the most bizarre alchemical plot. In the midst of this is a beautiful woman who suffers from something which we have in our world: her face can’t move. She can’t show any expression, and she can’t talk. She can’t even blink or close her eyes. It happens at a time of Carnival, when everyone wears a mask – but her face is the mask...” (Tanith Lee) http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

Is that the real reason we hide behind Lovecraft? Are we afraid of what moving on means in our tiny primal minds? Are we taking it personally? Running away when we should be embracing the variety of voices? The new monsters? The forgotten folklores? The old gods?

As scary as change is, stagnation is terminal. Are we ready to say “better dead than subgenres”? Do we really think we can stuff the genie back in the bottle? Clearly even stodgy Literary Critics could see the answer to that one…

Thank Cthulhu for Tanith Lee. We have proof that we once ventured out on that very Literary limb…before we got all paranoid and banished her to – of all things – Literature.

Writers like Tanith Lee represent gateway writers in a genre – ones whose work leads to even more exploration of topics or plots or character… to potential growth in new directions.

I believe Tanith Lee performed that function in Horror, her control of “ambiguities” leading us to try and then fully embrace a writer like Anne Rice (with her assortment of religious crises, amorous male vampires, erotica and adventures in B&D sex clubs), and then later to “forgive” a Clive Barker whatever imagined sin we previously ascribed to him…to accept a Gerald’s Game for the sake of the Horror…

I believe that Tanith Lee deserves a place in our canon as it becomes established, that Literary Critics need to bookmark her works for serious analysis as foundational for the 1970s and 1980s work in our genre. I hope that they will remember her when they go building our canon.

Tanith Lee planted seeds. And I can hear them growing.

Don’t you want to see the blooms?

T6

References

Gidney, Craig. “Tanith Lee: Channeling Queer Authors.” LambdaLiterary, September 13, 2010 as retrieved 1/9/2019 from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/09/13/tanith-lee-queer-authors/

Flood, Allison.“World of fantasy: Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.” Alison Flood’s world of fantasy

Books , Fri 27 Aug 2010 06.05 EDT, as retrieved 1/9/2019 from

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee 

“Tanith Lee: Love & Death & Publishers” excerpted from Locus Magazine, April 1998), as retrieved //10/2019 from http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

 

You Can’t See Creepy With a Cellphone Light: Guilt & Shadows in American Horror


American Horror. It’s become this great, terrible disappointment.

What used to set my imagination on fire is now a non sequitur, a discombobulated mess of unrealized terrors.

I am bummed.

That realization started with the attempt to watch a movie in a movie theater not so long ago… A simple task, one which turned out to be a farce in a room full of bobbing silhouettes, a lot of explosions from nearby theater screens, and scores of cellphones – like fireflies – punctuating the darkness that was supposed to have monsters in it.

Imagine my Horror when the stars of the movie produced their own cellphones , holding them out like crucifixes to ward off the darkness of their haunted house. No wonder it took so long to find something scary. When the worst that can happen is no signal or a deficit of bars… well, the Horror just doesn’t get a foothold.

Today’s biggest fear: Not being able to text a buddy or access your Facebook profile.

How does a Horror writer work with that?

And if we are facing a future Renaissance, how do we “tap” into the important stuff – you know – to make American Horror more American? And Horrifying?

Cre1

 https://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3223252/stop-being-a-victim-you-can-stop-cell-phone-use-in-theaters/

 

It’s Under the Bed

It seems to me we’ve managed to lose – or maybe just misplace – a few important Horror tools in our rush to be “civilized”… I mean, whatever happened to worrying about going to Hell, or Hell coming after you personally? About footsteps behind you, whispers from no one, eyes in the dark, cold air in the summer time?

We have cheapened our monsters in American Horror…They are expected guests, too often late to the party, overdressed, and so glossy they risk flirtatious comparison to better monsters once constrained in zippers…We have conditioned ourselves, desensitized ourselves, and routinely dismiss the edgiest of new creatures because name-dropping is how we roll. But the best terrors have always been the simple, personal ones…

Whatever happened to real ghosts… the kind that aren’t really a serial killer, or a psychotic break, or evil stepmothers, a disguise for the worst possible witch EVER, or the disconnected, secular demon with one of two names?

Man, I miss ghosts… the really great ones that weren’t CG drawn, or implied by empty rooms with swinging light fixtures.

Whatever happened to real monsters… the kind that have tentacles and hide in weird, inconvenient places? Not the ones that are really an alien invasion, or a cut-and-paste frenzy of amalgamated, unexplained and resurrected traditional monsters, not another nuclear accident or escaped virus… But real dine-on-your-guts, eats-you-while-you’re-alive monsters? The kind that dropped out of our ancestral imaginations to stalk us through dark forests and black nights?

Man, I miss monsters….the kind that single us out of the herd and hunt in plain sight, or pull us under the bed by our ankles.

Isn’t it just a little bit sad that we are unwilling to put down the technology long enough to be scared? (“No, scare me with my cellphone – in case Fame and Fortune calls…”)

Well as a Horror writer here’s my theory: you’re too chicken to put the cellphone down. Sophisticated audience my sagging butt…You can’t even sit in a dark theater without a light in your hand. Oooo…Big Brave Modern Person waving a phone screen around a haunted house daring the ghost to show itself…

You want to see a ghost? Turn off the lights, dummy.

This is why British Horror works (listen up, I’m going to spill their secret): Technology may be present, but it doesn’t work where the monsters are.

That’s right. Monsters only live in that place between cellphone towers. When they are not inside them.

Call it atmosphere, call it obsession with an antiquated past. Go ahead and accuse them of exploiting their rich abundance of creepy ruins. But the British get it right on the most important score: they are going to isolate you long before the monster comes…they are going to give you a sweeping moor so you can see it coming…they are going to tell you WHY you DESERVE it.

(Sure, I probably should just go on and move to England. But they wouldn’t like me there: I have a funny accent.)

Really, American Horror writers have no excuse. We create new ruins daily. Just because we call them blight, or strip malls, or White Flight changes nothing. And they are loaded with all kinds of socially-dysfunctional atmosphere. We build them everywhere…on our own graveyards, on Native American graveyards, on Grandma’s house that some large corporation spent years of litigation forcing her out of just so a shopping center could sit empty on the spot.

We have slaughtered our own wilderness…riddling it nonthreatening Bambi-like animals and exclusive, gated neighborhoods that tend to get devoured by large wildfires, and lots of ATV trails…cause, you know, the forests belong to everyone…We leave islands of non-native trees and call them forests. We shoot wildlife that wanders into our neighborhoods fearing they will eat our children in revenge for depriving them of natural food and habitat. We expect manicured and managed grounds to keep the tigers and lions and scavengers at bay.

We avoid religion at all costs. We pronounce ourselves atheists or agnostics or some new species of Christian… all of whom remain mysteriously and miraculously unaffected by the doings of the Underworld, death, and its untidy accoutrement.

So why do we have the audacity to complain when “nothing” scares us?

I say it is an act. I say it indicates just how very scared we are…with the lights ON.

 

Cre2

https://www.beyondsciencetv.com/2017/07/25/the-mysterious-shadow-people/

Guilt: the Equal Opportunity Shadow Person

I find it interesting, this sudden manifestation of “shadow people” in all things Horror. But in truth, if we refuse to turn out the lights, what real recourse does any self-respecting ghost or monster actually have?

When we look at Horror – really LOOK at it – chances are what we are seeing is our own fears manifest. It’s what has made Horror not only a great genre, but a universal one.

We share fear as former prey animals, because before we built SUVs and McMansions, we slept in trees and under bushes where job success meant staying alive another day. And even though we are living lives that typically mask those memories with overnight delivery and beds we still find need to elevate ever higher off the ground, we dread the impersonal death we all face and which might just be watching us from the closet, its claws and tentacles retracted but still visible underneath that pile of clothes…

But for modern humanity that fear has taken on yet another dimension and indistinct origin – guilt. Sometimes it is collective guilt – the sense that we as human beings could have conducted ourselves better. But more often it is personal – the sense that just because an ancestor was not held to the scales of Justice, or that what we ourselves did to a coworker went unremarked – an avenging angel awaits our one moment of inattention. Like any delinquent child, we manipulate and lie and deny all things that might bring the sword down on our own heads. Yet deep down, we know justice will not be denied, and we fear the manner in which it will come for us.

The Shadow Man is the perfect manifestation of an equalizer. Shadows are by definition both part of and separate from us, featureless, colorless, yet sinister and representative of a primal terror of things come from above to end us.

How many toddlers run screaming from their first glance of their own shadow? How many creatures subconsciously duck when one moves overhead? It is perhaps why we look up so often, dreading to see God seeing us…knowing we are flawed creations, destined for sin, careening toward judgment, knowing we deserve whatever the Creator chooses for us.

We cannot escape our shadow: it goes everywhere with us, even when total light or total dark obliterates its image. And we watch it, mesmerized by its mimicry of our every move. It is because predators hide in shadows that we do not trust our own.

And so it is a logical next step to exaggerate our fears by giving shadows a life of their own – even liberating our own to take vengeance upon us.

It doesn’t matter that some deny guilt altogether, rejecting their place in human events if not their own lives and actions.

Monsters can see in the dark.

 

Cre3

http://archcity.media/2017/03/02/judgement-zone-vol-1/

Saving Ourselves

We still have just enough religion left in our souls to suspect there are consequences for everything, and to everything we will be held accountable. It makes sense; most religions tell us the Creator left us “in charge” of the planet and all life on it.

We are not free to point at failed leaders or flawed icons. The responsibility is absolute.

Yet we rebel. We point at each other, or dismiss the crimes if we cannot bury them or rewrite them out of existence. And so what is left if not our shadows?

It does not surprise me that Shadow People are the newest monster to enter the Horror pantheon. The more global we become, the more likely our sins against one another will rise to the surface. That they remain close, disguised as faceless imitations of ourselves is not surprising. We cannot go anywhere – not the White House, not Hollywood, not Mars – without our sins following us. Like shadows.

And perhaps it is all about frustration in the simple execution of justice that makes Shadow People so popular a phenomenon. There are so many, after all, who seem to get away with unforgivably much, without any sign of justice descending.

For that we need our demons to part the veil and savage the world. We need the sense that if the Creator won’t do it, then something darker will. And we relish the thought.

Yet we also worry about our own culpability. This is why so much Horror is written: we struggle with the parsing out of judgment. We ponder the Great Biblical Flood, and the realization that only one family was spared, deemed worthy of salvation. We suspect our own hands are not clean, and hope we can fool our final judge with tilted halo and angelic smile.

Guilt is why we light every corner. It is why we suspect every shadow.

Cre4

https://www.ghostlyactivities.com/dreaming-ghosts-monsters/

Dissembling, Disassembling & Dissociating

Horror has for some time now, embraced the overpopulation of monsters in its stories. One is never enough – especially in the United States. But worse than that, the monsters take shape and then are dismantled and reshaped and denied and then made into something else less paranormal, less religiously centered, and more psychological so they can be properly slain.

We are completely unable to commit. We hide among masks and monsters we prove to be not what they appeared, performing creative gymnastics to compartmentalize the guilt that summoned them.

I have long wondered why one really good, complete, storied monster is not enough in contemporary American Horror.

I have watched us build creatures that like Legos are deconstructed and reconstructed to the point that we lose interest in why they are there at all, until the subtext is so subverted and mangled that it comes as no surprise Literary Critics say that as writers we don’t “get” it.

But I think they are wrong: we “get” it, we just don’t understand the strength and responsibility it takes to wield it…to face ourselves. In the dark. Surrounded by shadows…

I confess that as a writer I have struggled with this power. In this time of conformity, it is easy to edit the monster right out of the Horror and the Horror out of the monster. In attempting to follow the long laundry list of what makes good writing and good monsters, we often find we have lost the slimy beasts themselves. We wake up to reread the revision and find we have written that same unsatisfactory story we hate in the theater.

Horror is elusive with too many people in your head…

And with so many examples foisted in front of us that are just wrong, how do we start to get it right? How do we readjust our monster-making machinery?

Perhaps first, we need the monster out of the shadows – just for a quick look, a quick confession.

Monsters are not the climactic answer, the tah dah! … Monsters are vehicles for expressing the subtext of guilt, of Justice Due.

To find them we most certainly have to be willing to turn out the lights…to experience the sounds of something unseen prowling about, weighing our souls. We have to embrace the fear.

That means we have to acknowledge the very act that causes the guilt…

The need to push that away, to deny we were even at that party is not good enough. Denial makes the monster bigger.

Yet we have adopted the convention that our characters must NOT – no matter what – acknowledge the monster “because it gives them power over us…”

How many times have you heard that?

How many times was it wrong?

Ghosts walk because of something we did. Denied in Life, they will not be denied in Death. Ignore them at your own peril…

Ghosts follow because it is you who must set things right when it is perhaps not you but your kind who owes the debt.

Shadows are ghosts freed from the haunted house. It is their nature to follow you. Everywhere. Even when you cannot or refuse to see them. Like your sins.

There is no elixir. No amulet. No exorcism. There is only an increasing demand for Justice denied.

Why don’t we just turn out the lights and face it? One has to wonder where our Literature is in these trying times, when we are otherwise being forced to acknowledge our failings and our stand up for our values and beliefs. Human ethical trials are, after all, where the world’s greatest Literature comes from…

Where is our Great American Horror of this era? It is lurking in an uncertain future, waiting for its writers to start seeing in the dark…

I personally think it is in that dark theater, its audience loaded down with cellphones, complaining that nothing is scary anymore, that Horror is a ripoff. I think it is in the denial that we have anything to do with anyone else’s suffering on this planet. I think it is the desperate hope that we can lie our way out of being devoured alive by the monsters we have created.

I think we should all turn out the lights and see.

Cre5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKUcW2uyYUc