Nemesis Lost: the Passing of Harold Bloom and an Unpopular Era of Literary Criticism


Last month marks the passing of Literary Critic Harold Bloom, dead at 89, gone from the fray on Monday, October 14, 2019.

A long-time nemesis of our genre, Bloom was best known for his caustic, vicious attacks on Stephen King, for whom he had no affection or Critical respect. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect Bloom probably wished to impart to the pop-saturated American public – to educate us that there are certain accepted criteria involved in the making of and recognition of what we understand to be “Literature.” Instead, he got our hackles up and our mob-mentality fully activated… we made an art of despising him. He energized our base because he encapsulated everything we hated and thought we knew about the Literary Critic and the constant dangling of unattainable Literary acclaim out of reach of any genre writer where academia was concerned.

We convinced ourselves that it was the Harold Blooms of the world who kept us down and insulted us.

But we didn’t really know Harold Bloom, and we have in our own knee-jerk reactions underestimated the important, side-glancing impact he had on our genre.

Most of us had no idea that Harold Bloom was a rebel in his own time for attempting to bring an understanding of Literary Criticism to the American public, often criticized and ostracized himself by the Literary Critical Establishment for even attempting to speak to the common reader. Most of us still have no idea how much he made us think about Horror, about genre and speculative fiction, about what Literature is or should be…Yet Bloom fought the Literary Establishment to bring an understanding of Criticism to the masses.

Surprising, isn’t it? Harold Bloom… the people’s Critic….

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When Our Worst Critics Make Us Better

With so many unpleasant exchanges that come to mind, we in the Horror genre are not wont to think of the merits of a Critic like Harold Bloom. Yet it is precisely because of his disgust at the decline of great Literature being taught in schools and written in our garrets that he was the way he was. And if we take apart and try to understand his angst, what we find is a man who simply loved the Classics so much, that he wanted us to join in the appreciation if he had to beat it into us. Horror was one of his sticks. And while it is easy to surrender to tit-for-tat verbal insults, the most important thing Harold Bloom did for the Horror genre was to get us thinking about the Horror genre…

Because of Harold Bloom , we were united; we were analytical in our own way, looking at his critical comments and looking at the Horror he despised and trying to see why he might be right OR wrong… In other words, we had discussions – offered up in un-academic arguments, perhaps – but discussions. Essays, Critically-worthy essays and polemics were born, and writers and readers questioned just a little bit what they were reading and writing and how or why it might be equal or inferior. We were forced to become experts on our own writers and genre writing in order to defend the lot.

Because of Harold Bloom, we needed to understand Literature so we could argue Horror’s merits…

Yet we just could not abide the man. He was so…Critical….

We thought it was because he not only represented the Literary Critical Establishment, but because he so sounded like the caricature we had of it in our heads – the one that brutalized our best writers like Poe and Lovecraft – authors that are now (partly thanks to our own reaction to the Criticisms of Critics like Harold Bloom) considered canon material by New Critics…

This has so much to do with the stagnation of the field of Literary Criticism that happened during the Publishing Boom. Harold Bloom was a child and student of The Old School… the one abandoned by readers and many students in the 1970’s for being so out-of-touch and elitist.

Harold Bloom was born on July 11, 1930, in the East Bronx, into an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the youngest of five children of William and Paula (Lev) Bloom, struggling immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker…. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

What should we expect from a man born so far back from where we are now? Harold Bloom was not a loveable curmudgeon. For those of us in the Horror genre, he represented everything that is wrong about academia and Literary Criticism. He was rude, abrasive, and said things he obviously and passionately meant without a word of explanation that was not laced with academic snobbery.

The fact is Harold Bloom surprised most of us…especially perhaps those who he loved to criticize most – the genre-lovers, the genre writers, the de facto enemies of Real Literature… We were so often the targets of his angst, his unabated fury with what he perceived to be an American willingness to abdicate the whole of Literature for the cheap, dazzling trinkets of pop culture.

In an New York Times article on his death, writer Dinitia Smith says:

“Professor Bloom was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as betraying literature’s essential purpose.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

Harold Bloom (like most of his fellow Critics) made himself very difficult to like. It didn’t help that he so constantly went after our most prominent and beloved writer, Stephen King. However the closer we look, the more we see he was a product of his times and his profession. And perhaps because times were indeed changing rapidly during his lifetime, including how we viewed “other” peoples and ways of thinking, the rise of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights, perhaps that is why there seemed such a generation gap of sorts between modern writers, their fans, and Literary Critics in general. They just seemed so out-of-step with the rest of us…

Yet sometimes it is that very conflict that becomes a catalyst for good changes. It is just not always easy getting there.

Lost in our own emotional blizzard of reactions to what Literary Critics said about our genre and our writers, what we never understood about those like Harold Bloom was that their fury was based in a much bigger frustration – both at the failure of academia to impart the “right kind” of education and our failure to “get” what seemed so blatantly obvious to himself and others of his field. And in truth, it was their presentation – their attitude – that made it easy to not really care.

This is the danger of ignorance: not understanding the criticism of a thing, and so attacking the messenger… And where Harold Bloom and Horror were concerned, the battle became both animated and amplified by ignorance on both sides.

Yes, both sides.

Critics have long assumed that full-of-themselves writers fancy their own work to be Literature because it sold well, someone said it was “good,” or because they themselves are convinced of it. In reality, most of us know what we write because we CHOOSE to write it…We simply disagree that genre writing has no value, place, or purpose in a Literate society.

Genre fans, on the other hand, have long assumed that Critics were a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant old white men who were Critics because they couldn’t write themselves, and who “made up” criteria for defining Literature (a theory that gained popularity because Critics refused to “explain” anything of their Craft) really disagreeing with our nonacademic measure of Literature because the secret truth is they actually have strict criteria designed to tame personal opinion. And it is apparently a secret.

All of our passions collided when publishing boomed and littered the literary landscape with all manner of writing starting in the late 1800’s and imploding in the 1990s. That’s about a hundred years of pulp and periodicals, paperbacks and bestseller lists. With abundant talk shows on radio and television, multiple newspapers in every city, and Hollywood trolling for new film material, the “modern era” was the first time the reading public had forums to read, watch and participate in where what we read became a topic of discussion. It was natural for us to ask the question what exactly IS Literature and who and how is that title decided upon?

When Nobody answered and the questions were met with highbrow eye-rolling and insults, when even teachers didn’t seem up to the task of explaining, the transformation of fandom into hordes of angry anti-Critics was a natural one.

On one side we had writers with bestselling works that “everyone” adored and their authors who secretly or publicly pondered why they were not considered Literature, and fans who tried to sort out the same question. On the other side we had a very old establishment of Literary Critics never before truly questioned about the process (even though many a Critic’s artistic vision and qualifications were routinely questioned by the same writers and fans). These Critics were used to operating in private ivory towers of academic setting, living in Shakespearean bubbles where all was Literarily right with the world, and where anything less than the Classics were vapid written renderings of cave paintings.

Bloom was no exception: “Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

To understand Harold Bloom, we have to understand that he (like authors he might Criticize) is himself a victim and product of his own times… He was a white male whose life’s work was studying what other white males declared Literary perfection…coincidentally, also largely written by still other white males. As we see today, there is a tendency by certain-aged people to cling to what they consider to be the “perfection of the past” when comparing it to contemporary times. With Critics, their angst is acutely measured by their obsession with Classic Literature—something (to our shame and detriment) fewer and fewer of us actually study, let alone read anymore. This has led to our communication gap and a generation gap with Critics. And Critics like Bloom were witnessing what to their way of thinking was and is an alarming change in our Literary capacity:

“Professor Bloom was ultimately both optimistic, in a narrow sense, and pessimistic, in a much broader one, about the durability of great literature. The books he loved would no doubt always find readers, he wrote, though their numbers might dwindle. But his great concern was that the books would no longer be taught, and thus become irrelevant.

“What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he wrote in “The Western Canon,” “where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html

It seems his fears are far too quickly becoming realized, what with the preferential treatment being given to Science, Math, Engineering and Technology at the literal expense of the Arts today. The Critics, it seems, were right to worry.

Yet not only did we really seem to be losing interest in reading Classic Literature, old Literary Critics had a new mantra…To Literary Critics of the past decades, we were largely no longer producing Literature. So what of the bestseller phenomenon? Could it be that any of those titles were in fact Literature too?

Critics like Bloom absolutely bristled.

But this was because that by merely asking we were exhibiting the very ignorance (read: miseducation or lacking education in this specific area) that appalled Literary Critics like himself. The interesting fact is that Bloom set out to do something about it – writing an enormous catalog of books explaining Literary Critical thinking (even though he still talked well above many of our heads, and even though he does this by ramming the same “perfect” works again and again down our ignorant throats)…

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The problem is the same vocabulary – whether whispered, shouted, or sang to us – is the same vocabulary. If academic Literary Critics refuse to show us Literary Critical Theory and how writing is expected to seat in the frame of it, we cannot understand the Critic’s argument: it just sounds like an arrogant opinion. It remains pointless to know that Shakespeare is Literature if we do not understand why. And if we do not understand why, we do not understand how, and we do not understand how to do more of it.

Bloom therefore, for all his good intentions, remained entrapped by his own engrained arrogances – ones his profession groomed in its practitioners. He could not abide the concept that we could even ask if Stephen King was or was ever Literature. The slight of the question seemed always to be met with an automatic default setting like those of most Critics: Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare is God,” he once said…Shakespeare is the perfection against which all others are measured. Bloom was a passionate defender of Classic Literature – it was genius in his mind, one of the highest achievements of humanity. How could so many of us simply not understand it? How could we confuse Literature with bestsellers? And how could we not adore the Classic writers as he did?

This has been the fatal flaw of Literary Critics for as long as there have been Literary Critics… The idea that genius is just something that should be understood when it is seen and that it is exclusive and that the realization is sufficient knowledge for “the rest of us” has made so many of us feel stupid and belittled that we have come to the conclusion that we don’t want to understand it.

Yet we still keep picking at the scab. We not only suspect there is a process: we are sure of it. And we are sure that someone has decided it should be a SECRET process…

When the field of Literary Criticism decided to make itself elitist and to feign insult when questioned, it signed its own death warrant. It didn’t matter that it was a victim of its own time, that professional academics in every field saw themselves as superior to the average person for many a century – largely because the rest of us were illiterate or less literate and tended to labor in manual trades… Literary Criticism – for all its alleged observational powers – failed to notice that times were changing. And in their exclusivity, they seemed to have forbidden teachers and professors from teaching any aspect of Literary Criticism – as though we might try to illegitimately do it without academic permission or authority…

They didn’t seem to be aware of the public’s hunger for reading, or our curiosity about Literature – but instead took our devouring of popular fiction as a sign and as proof that we were indeed ignorant, and hopelessly so. When the concept of the “Bestseller” burst forth, the Literary Critic bristled at questions the American public asked about why a popular work was not Literature when our educational system taught that the very definition of Classic Literature was framed in its endless and timeless popularity.

Ironically, Harold Bloom was one Critic who seemed to intuit that our ignorance was somehow attached to never being taught how to understand Literature. He spent his career laboring to educate us, to define Literature… becoming a champion of the Western Canon…enduring condemnation and criticism for attempting to decode the secrets of Literature. So why don’t we feel grateful?

I think it has to do with the fact that Literary Critics have always come across as aloof and elitist for most of us, let alone for those whose reading or writing passion is genre fiction. Speculative fiction has long been crowned the murderer of modern Literature, the spoiler, the probable reason Literature was seen as simply not-being written today. And writers like Stephen King have been the fly in the ointment: what did this mean that so many adore the man’s writing? How could something have such longevity with no merit?

It was clear this question was going to have to be answered, and that the answer could not be simply that we are all absolute Cretans (with apologies to Crete for the Literary insult). New Critics were starting to emerge who had grown up if not with King, then with other disdained writers like him, and they also wanted answers.

At the very moment Literary Criticism fell out of public favor, those New Critics started asking a very relevant question: was it possible that it wasn’t that we are not writing Literature today, but that the approved and established Theories were inadequate to the task of evaluating writing that had changed with the times? Was it possible that when working with living language that how we write and interpret our world might also be a living, evolutionary process?

It was a really good question.

The original Literary Critical Theories were designed for the purpose of studying Literature that was already to some degree or another Classic.

Those theories left no room to interpret modern problems and the way modern writers look at them. This was why (New Critics argued) it appeared that no Literature was being written – modern works did not neatly fit into those theories. So they began to come up with new ones.

And worse, Critics had begun to figure out that the modern world was delivering new complications to the field of Literary Criticism – like actually being a Literary Critic alive at the same time as the writer and their work, being privy to details Critics did not have with Classic authors, being able to encounter those authors in their own lifetimes, to have their fans cross swords in passionate disagreement. Like the boom in print publishing that unleashed all manner of writing to flood the coffers of Literary Criticism with new candidates – even bad ones – all clamoring for Literary attention and acclaim – using the Literary Critic for promotional blurbs instead of discussion and argument… All of a sudden the whole process seemed cheapened, adulterated…

The Literary Critic did not react well to the commercialization of fiction. It defied all things natural to the Critic’s sensibilities – offending him or her because until that time, Literature was more like fine wine… nurtured by the passage of time, sustained by the adoration and knowledge of experts. The publishing boom was anarchy. And then it was heresy.

Literary Critics like Harold Bloom looked more and more like dinosaurs to the rest of us, because the field of Literary Criticism saw itself as above explaining itself to mere commoners, and because the rest of us had no understanding of what Literary Critics actually do.

And even though in his own way and radically so to his own time Bloom was attempting to educate us on the matter, he still failed somewhat because he remained encased in that veneer of elitist Literary Critical superiority that had been carefully nurtured by the field for a good century.

People just don’t react well when talked down to. So even as he made converts among students who took his classes and those who braved reading his many written works on the matter of Criticism, he still managed to alienate the average American reader – the very audience he needed so desperately to reach and to educate.

Yet even in his provocative commentary, he managed to shake more of us out of complacency. We wanted to understand Literature and Literary Criticism – not to DO it…but to understand what makes a work Literature…

This is how you get Literary writers: you educate them early about Literature – what it is, why it is, how to read it, how it is written…

What we learned from Harold Bloom is that unless and until we all speak the same language, we are just yelling epithets at each other.

We can do better. We can be better. And what we need to take away from the long and storied career of Mr. Bloom is that we all have a lot of discussing to do.

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The Stephen King Debacle

Look, if we take away the poisonous words, we actually have important information that spills from the altercations with Bloom about Stephen King.

King is an anathema to most Critics. The American public absolutely cannot get enough of him. But what I find interesting is that today’s Critics cannot see why he is an anathema…

THIS is why:

Literary Critics do not belong in the same universe and time as the writer’s works they are criticizing. They just don’t. Just like time travelling versions of the same person, Critics and the authors they Criticize should never, ever meet. Bad things happen.

And neither do writers have a right to know they are writing Literature during their lifetimes. (Sure, it is nice to know one is thought of in that way, but we have no right to know we are “guaranteed” a place in the canon or immortality.)

Consider that the best Literary Criticism – and so much of it still ongoing – is about Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare. There is a reason for that and the whole Death of the Author argument is likely why – nobody is left to talk about Shakespeare and his private life and choices. It is all theory now. Pure theory. And the Critical work is phenomenal because most of what is left is just the work. The reason is the intellectual distance…

Work Critical Theory on Stephen King and you have a lot of mess, a lot of personal get-in-the-way-of-objectivity stuff that does not belong in Criticism. We should not know why King writes what he writes, where he gets his ideas, whether he is too commercialized. Nor should we know about the Critic and his or her personal likes or dislikes. We need to see King in a vacuum, far away from the 1970s and 1980s in particular. We need to see King in the context of other writers and writing styles of his time. And we can’t do that fairly when we are from the same time… Only distance will tell us if King writes Literature or ever writes Literature. Until then, all we have are inklings.

Until we get some object distance, we can only suspect things about a work. We can only reveal our own preferences, likes and dislikes.

When Bloom went after King, what we were witnessing was this personal preference stuff, all mixed in with what Bloom understood from his love of Classic Literature (like Shakespeare) and that which he believes actually is Literature. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be compared to Shakespeare. Or Poe, for that matter…

Do I think we are better off without Bloom’s criticism of King? No. There are probably some perks to having Old School meet New Writer. But we need to keep things in perspective.

King is no Shakespeare. Nor are most of us. So we should take Bloom’s angst for what it was – the despairing of a Critic for… more Shakespeare.

King is King. But what the rest of us need to take away from the whole debacle is that there are and should be differences of opinion and discussion about what makes a work Literature. And that we can and should be a peripheral part of that discussion. We need to ask Critics and get answers as to when and why a work might be considered Literary potential. How else can we appreciate the point of Literary Criticism? How else can we hope to write new Literature?

We need to know it is okay that we have questions.

Just like we need to know that it is more than okay to aspire to write Literature…

That it is okay to muck it up.

And while Critics may love to rag on Stephen King for not being (in their modern opinions) Literary…

What King has been responsible for is the fueling of curiosity of why Critics think he is not writing Literature… What Bloom has been responsible for is making us get off the fence and demand explanation.

When a Critic like Bloom attacks, if we can shake loose from the immediate gut-response to punch back, what we get is more curiosity about Literature.

Wasn’t that the point? What newer generations (including my own older generation) need, is Literary Critics willing to talk TO US, not DOWN TO US.

That was Bloom’s fatal flaw… and it brought out the worst in all of us in the genre.

Yet…Literary Criticism is changing. Isn’t it ironic that it is doing so because of the one man so many of us loved to hate – Harold Bloom?

Harold Bloom is the last well-known Critic of a much older way of thinking and doing Literary Criticism… With his passing, we are seeing a closing of the book on the worst part of this legacy – that old attitude of elitism. I think he tried to some degree to rise above that, but couldn’t really help himself, so lost in his passion as he was.

But I also think we owe him a huge debt. He has left behind a large body of work on the field of Literary Criticism, much of it designed for the layman. He has contributed to massive changes in the academic approach of Literary Critics. He has fired up a lot of Horror fans to defend our genre and to demand answers about Literature – to even go into the field of Literary Criticism as Horror fans (some even raised on reading King). He has got us thinking and talking, if not arguing…and in some cases becoming Literary Critics.

And that is a good thing. No matter how you might feel about his disdain for our genre, you have to admit he pushed us from our complacency, caused us to demand Literary Criticism – fairly assessed – be done upon our genre works. The result is not only New Literary Criticism, but actual Critics like S.T. Joshi and China Mieville rising from the battlefield… Horror is on its way to joining the Literary Canon… and not without some irony, we have Harold Bloom to thank.

So from our beleaguered, defensive and proud genre, thank you, Mr. Bloom. You have proven Shakespeare right:

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” William Shakespeare (As You Like it)

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


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

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

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

In fact…where IS our history?

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

The Inevitable Identity Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t.

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

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

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

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

Our History in Reprints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALL OF THAT INFORMATION IS LOST. GONE. IRRETRIEVABLE.

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

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

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

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

How long are we going to put up with this?

Why is the solution someone else’s problem?

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

It certainly feels like it.

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

And what about future editors?

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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 Critics and Comic Books

This is what the internet has reduced us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What To Do About Our History Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because this is all that remains of our historical narrative…

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

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

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

The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

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The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

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A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

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

“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part Two)


The shortest, most succinct definition of Weird I ever read was: “Stories about things that cannot possibly happen.”

To this day, that is the most helpful of all definitions I have read – the least complicated with the most meat. That simple statement reminds the reader and the writer to think about the ultimate destination of plot, and the conditions by which we get there. For example, this particular definition of Weird includes all of the traditional monsters of Horror – although the ghost waivers on the fringe at times. But it also encompasses what is referred to as “Cosmic Horror” – which is to Science Fiction what Dark Fantasy is to Fantasy.

However, nothing in defining Weird Fiction is completely simple because as a reader or Critic accumulates examples of stories, there is just enough “spin” on the different plots, characters and atmosphere that Critics need more specifics.

So let the digging and defining begin…

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Defining Weird Fiction

When anyone attempts to succinctly define Weird Fiction, they inevitably resort to discussing H.P. Lovecraft. It isn’t that Lovecraft invented the Weird (he did not) but it was under his study and practice of it that the form coalesced. Part of the reason was Lovecraft’s inability to market much of his fiction, and part of it was his own obsession to clarify its differences from Supernatural and Gothic fiction forms of the day. Either way, Lovecraft spent a lot of time writing — including essays and  letters to other writers exploring the Weird. Because of his skill as a paid editor and his love of both literature and pulp forms, he better expressed the differences he was seeing – a talent that in turn makes him a favorite among fans as well as modern Critics when looking at the Weird.

But as the Weird caught on with other writers and the body of Weird literature (small “L”) began to grow, scholars of such things as definitions had new decisions to make. Was Weird writing in decline after Lovecraft, or undergoing expansion and change?

This has led to dabbling in terms such as the New Weird, the Modern Weird, and the British Weird to include all of the writings that came after Lovecraft. But does this help or hurt the definition? And isn’t all Weird just Weird?

First, one needs to acknowledge that there are as many definitions as there are readers, writers, and Critics of the Weird. Critics are obsessed with nailing down the defining conventions of Weird fiction as Lovecraft wrote it simply because to understand revision one must know the purist original form.

While everyone is entitled to their opinions, I admit to being persuaded by better argued opinions, not so much those offered by the merely passionate. To help get us pointed in the same direction, I have chosen to highlight those definitions which show an interrelated set of themes – specifically those presented by Lovecraft himself, by rising Horror Critic S.T. Joshi, British writer and Critic China Mieville, and editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (primarly because of their recent effort to compile an almost encyclopedic collection of Weird tales).

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H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the problem: Weird fiction was in the process of defining itself when Lovecraft died in 1937. While a number of writers were quite vocal about the subject, until Lovecraft adopted the form exclusively, “Weird” was pretty much a misunderstood and often generally applied adjective. With Lovecraft, the idea of genre began to coalesce and conventions began to emerge. This is what makes Lovecraft — a prolific writer of letters and essays on the subject – a dominating force and constant reference for Critics in the attempt to define the whole of Weird Fiction.

Lovecraft was a dedicated student of such Weird tales as its early days presented. Specifically he gravitated toward Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, and Greek mythology (Montague-Lovecraft 30) – all of which have recognizable influence on his encapsulation of the Weird. Yet he also read and had “affection for the dime novels of the day, ironically, given his like for the more highbrow end of literature. He voraciously devoured westerns, detective and espionage stories….” (16).

All of this congealed in his style until the one discovery that would set the Weird in motion – astronomy. In his essay, “Confession of Unfaith,” Lovecraft states: “The most poignant sensations of my existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and of 1902 when I discovered the myriad suns and worlds of infinite space…The futility of all existence began to impress and oppress me; and my references to human progress, formerly hopeful, began to decline in enthusiasm.” (Montague-Lovecraft 28).

This changed everything. For one thing, the bulk of Lovecraft’s earlier works were largely in imitation of other writers as he searched for his own voice. It was the unique marriage of his study of astronomy, mythology and the writings of those at the forefront of Weird writing that gave him focus and his own style, launching the Weird into its own cosmos. This is where the Weird was born, assembled from the many parts that had already begun to burst from the egg sac of the Supernatural and Gothic forms.

The first thing that Weird writers changed was how characterization was revealed in Weird tales. This is a significant difference from the rest of the fiction of the day – and a change that alienated Lovecraft from the Critics of the time. But the change had in a sense already happened in the pulps – it simply hadn’t been completely unified into a type of fiction with its own name and criteria. Gone were the deeply developed, likeable Literary characters. Instead the characterizations seemed cold and almost shallowly drawn – there but for the purpose of advancing the plot toward what would become a Literary-induced end, fraught with world view.

So while we assume that by reading Lovecraft, we might be influenced enough to be writing Weird… that by osmosis we become schooled in the Weird… something has indeed gone a bit awry. As it is, we get into trouble when we as writers (and that means any of us from novice to professional ranks) read someone like Lovecraft, and attempt to mimic him without understanding Lovecraft’s own interpretation of how weird fiction functions.

For example, Joshi explains, “….the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy… and to lay the ground for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm…is not so different in the approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism.” However the “dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the popular success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction” (7).

China Mieville agrees, clearly stating: “Lovecraft’s protagonists are so unheroic: there is no muscular intervention that can save the day.” (Mieville xiii).

Yet before we in displaced loyalty to King or Straub attack Mieville or Joshi, we must first realize that the reason Joshi (and Mieville) arrived at this conclusion is because Lovecraft himself declared, “I could not write about ‘ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of imagination….”(7)

Says Joshi, “Weird fiction should not be about ordinary people. Even if one does not adopt the ‘cosmic” attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary” (Joshi-Modern Weird 7). He further clarifies that in his opinion the heavy emphasis on the latter makes a weird work “thin and poorly conceived” where not enough attention is paid to the reason for the work itself – the weird phenomenon. (7)

In addition to the change in character, there was something else…the Weird had embraced a new otherworldliness…one that was definitely not the familiar supernatural. It was called cosmic horror.

Lovecraft began to actively follow in the footsteps of Blackwood, Machen and Chambers, whose protagonists “were often doomed men for whom reality had become blurred. Often, they were scientists or explorers who were forced to undergo horrific physical transmutations or witness hideous rituals, the natural and scientific laws shattered in the process.” (30).

This marks a sea change in the writing of the day, unifying writers that were sharing new conventions and more “modern” world views that distinguished them from the Gothic tradition (which itself seemed to face backward); a new lineage was being spawned, and a strong focus on – if not preoccupation with – discovery and the sciences was the impetus. It also meant that there was a desire to define what is natural law and therefore what is supernatural. Because for writers of the Weird, it was the breaking of natural laws and the birth of the irrational  that offered more tangible Horror than the mere supernatural.

The preoccupation with the cosmic influence on the minimization of humanity became the impetus of Weird fiction that lifted the Weird tale from the earlier, more constraining conventions of the nineteenth century Gothic tale and ghost story and “imbued the reader with a sense of creeping unease” (30) – which we now recognize as one of the Weird’s main structural conventions.

It was Lovecraft who seemed most preoccupied with defining what he was writing – of giving the Weird structure.  Other writers seemed to drift in and out of the form – but it was Lovecraft who dedicated himself to it – who sculpted out the very idea of a genre space. And with his passing, coincidentally came a new blow to the Weird.

 

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S.T. Joshi

By 1940, explains Joshi, “the demise of the pulps led to the birth of paperback book publishing and some of the genres – particularly mystery and science fiction – flourished in this new medium. Weird fiction, for whatever reason, did not.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4) This means that the window for gathering definitive works used to model conventions upon and cement formula is particularly narrow. Continues Joshi, “Until recent times, of course, weird fiction was never written in any great quantity; before the establishment of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, no periodical was ever devoted exclusively to the weird” and since then, most modern writers of the weird also have an affinity for other genres – such as Robert Bloch, Fritz Lieber, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont (4).

For this reason, Joshi is wont to study Lovecraft for useful definitions, drawn directly from the most complete skeleton of the early Weird ever excavated – Lovecraft.

And what seems to strike Joshi most about the early Weird and Lovecraft’s use of it is the one thing most likely to grab at a Critic’s heart – philosophyand in this case, world view.

Says Joshi: “The weird tale offers unique opportunities for philosophical speculation – it could be said that the weird tale is an inherently philosophical mode in that it frequently compels us to address directly such fundamental issues as the nature of the universe and our place in it… certain authors develop certain types of world views that compel them to write fiction that causes readers to question, revise, or refashion their views of the universe; the result is what we (in retrospect) call weird fiction.” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 11)

While this may seem like the kind of boring, beside-the-point stuff only a Literary Critic could love, it is important to the definition of what we call Weird fiction. Most of us already sense an “elevation” in Weird writing that sets it apart from the rest of pulp, and we are proud when we see Critics appreciate what it was we sensed. But what we need to acknowledge is that this “elevation” is due to the incursion of Literary elements – in this case that intrusion of philosophy. And that means that if we write Weird fiction, according to the developing definition, our writing must include some form of it. Fortunately, when writing true Weird fiction, such is almost unavoidable – another reason Critics have embraced this one ingredient as part of the official definition of Weird.

A second qualifier for the Weird is form. Notes Joshi, “Lovecraft makes clear in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ the vital shift in weird writing affected by Poe – principally in making the short story rather than the novel the vehicle for the weird and in his insistence on psychological realism…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 3)

Ironically, modern times have seen a spike in the short story format – perhaps an event fanned by the flames of self-immolating publishing houses – driving most writers to magazine and anthology markets. And this has helped in souring a revisitation of writers to our pulpish roots, as well as spawning innumerable Lovecraft-themed anthologies which can’t help but create a new wave of New Weird writing…

But it has also caused us to revisit the issue of why – with few exceptions – our writers have difficulty achieving success with novels in our genre. It has long been argued by Critics that the Horror story itself is not suited to novel-length development – that it cannot sustain the necessary tension throughout to deliver the required shock-ending. And the greater success of short story anthologies in our genre would seem to support the argument. However then one has to look at a writer/Critic like China Mieville and his success in the novel form of Weird writing to wonder if this is true, or if we have been making excuses…

Joshi clearly thinks that this smaller group of successes indicates that the Weird tale itself suggests a conventional preference for short story. Here he aligns himself with Lovecraft, who long promoted message over money – another  Critical preference. So while there may be exceptions, Joshi seems to believe like Lovecraft that the standard medium for the Weird tale is the short story…even if we must starve to write it.

The third qualifier – as mentioned by Lovecraft in the quote above – is the use of psychological realism… or as Joshi explains, “any tales founded upon science” and most often utilizing a “subset of nonsupernatural horror.”  An example would be the psychological ghost story where the realism is delivered as based chiefly on the findings of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis – which is not science fiction “because of their manifest intent to incite horror” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 7-8). This use of the ghost story to delineate and illustrate how the Weird acts differently upon traditional genre is an important concept to grasp. If you don’t see it, you will miss the important boundary line between the Weird and the rest of Horror.

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China Mieville

For China Mieville, one of the greatest “tells” of Weird fiction – especially in lieu of Lovecraft – are the monsters. Because as Mieville points out, these are not “the modernizing of the familiar vampire or werewolf (or garuda or rusalka or any other such traditional bugbear). Lovecraft’s pantheon and bestiary are sui generis. There have never been any fireside stories of these creatures; we have neither heard of nor seen anything like them before. This astonishing novelty is one of the most intriguing and important things that can be noted about Lovecraft, and about the tradition of Weird fiction in general.” (Mieville xiv)

The shift to new and imaginary fauna in fiction was concept shattering…and it led directly to the development of modern Fantastic fiction. But it was the effect of World War I which carried the greatest influence on these embryonic forms of new fiction – the horrors of which “smashed apart the complacencies of rationality and uncovered the irrationality at the heart of the modern world… certainly (the) stock of werewolves and effete vampires were utterly inadequate to the task” (xv) of enlivening our collective nightmares.

Yet, according to Mieville, early fantasy writers tried anyway. Says Mieville, “At the low end of culture in the pulp magazines (such as Weird Tales) Weird fiction shared with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that was in fact saturated with the uncanny.” (xv) Hence, the Scientific Uncanny infused and informed the Weird, and writers like Lovecraft began to insinuate what were then cutting-edge scientific theories into their fiction  and wind them back to description and color of myth and folklore (xv). The result is a horrendous and unholy marriage between what we fear our technologically driven discoveries will reveal about us, and what we already know about our primal origins.

These two features of Weird fiction then – the often indescribable, never before seen monster and its irrational/impossible intrusion into our rational world – provide a binary set of conventions that inform the definition of the Weird. And for Lovecraft, “the exposition of a monstrous cosmic history, of hateful cults, of the misbehavior of matter and geometry, is all the stronger for being gradually, seemingly randomly, uncovered.” (xii)

But there is a third characteristic of the Weird that Mieville and Joshi both note a characteristic presence of: setting.

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The VanderMeers

For most of us in the genre, we are most aware of atmosphere as a required convention. We are used to and long for the eerie, mist-covered moors, the dread-covered darkness that seeps into every cell and serves as the vehicle for the deliverance of Horror. Horror takes the familiar and builds unease. The Weird, however does something slightly different – and to the Critic’s liking – more Literary with setting: it temporarily abolishes the rational – suspending the story in time and place instead of merely coloring its temperament. In the Weird the setting –not the circumstances – isolate and transform.

According to the VanderMeers, “Usually the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the usual that they have become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss they may decide to unsee what they saw, but they still saw it.” (VanderMeer xv).

This indulgence in atmosphere is more pervasive than in generic Horror… We as readers are not connected to the character as much as we are connected to the feeling the character is meant to experience and which he or she typically is unable to fully describe. Add the VanderMeers, “Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing, the most keenly attuned amongst us will say “I know it when I see it’ by which they mean ‘I know it when I feel it….” (xvi)

This feeling is often drawn directly out of the setting of the story – the best example of which is likely Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft’s use of the stark, almost-lunar landscape of the Arctic serves to isolate and perform that refashioning of reality that allows for the revelation of monsters and the truths about us which they may represent. It is a characteristic then of Weird fiction that setting takes on an active role – almost as a separate character itself, wherein “The most unique examples of the Weird …largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today.” (xvi)

It is a Critical “plus” that such landscape in Weird fiction Literarily represents both the writer’s psychic landscape while being a symbolic statement of our collective psyche and culture (Mieville  xvii) As such, it offers that road to world view and philosophy so highly valued by Critics, including evidence of a writer’s personal evolution over time and works. But it also causes that equally interesting and Literary change in the reader – that transformation or reanalysis of the reader’s world view… “A reverie or epiphany,” say the VanderMeers, “But a dark reverie or epiphany…” in which it is easy to be emotionally overcome and our explorations become personally transformative (VanderMeer xv).

This does not mean that to write Weird Fiction we should birth contrived creations designed to bury our beliefs for Critical excavation – those Critical elements are subliminal at best, and artistically placed when professionally handled. The best Weird fiction is still honest fiction. Nor should this be taken to mean that Weird fiction always has exotic locations, but that the sense of the exotic, the unknown and unknowable lurk heavily within any chosen Weird setting. But it also means that when we sit down to read or write Weird fiction, there should be some things that are universally fixed in that writing.

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The Conclusion

So where does all of this leave us – the writers and readers of the Weird?

The general consensus seems to be summed up by leading Horror editor Paula Guran in her introduction to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016, “The Dark Dangerous Forest” in which she addresses definitions in general:

“We’ve already established that neither dark fantasy nor horror is really definable. Any definition you might apply is apt to be debated anyway. Perhaps more importantly, both terms are – by the very nature of what they describe – always evolving, changing, mutating, transforming.” (Guran 7)

Not that I make a habit of disagreeing with leading editors, but I seriously do disagree…with respect to the totally awesome Ms. Guran…

I believe there are definitions – there have to be, or there is no such thing as genre…and rejections are worthless, psychic endeavors – not about controlling skilled writing and craft. The very complicated and difficult task of cementing any such definitions belongs to the Literary Critic in particular, and variance on the theme is in the hands of writers and editorial preferences. However, to attempt to escape the responsibility of defining genres and subgenre conventions because it is difficult (which is why Literary Critics are educated in Literature and Linguistics to the Ph.D. level) or ever changing (which is the state of all Literature – even genre), is a cop-out.

Language and Literature are living things. Of course they are always changing. That’s why there is Lovecraftian Weird, New Weird, Modern Weird, British Weird, feminist Weird…need I go on? But this doesn’t change the truth that something makes Weird, WEIRD. That “thing” must be definable or how are writers to be expected to write it? Critics to analyze it? Editors to select it? Readers to find it?

This is not to say that the task is easy. When even our best Critics are feeling the frustration, it makes our task all the harder.

Between his study of Lovecraft and his Critical exploration of Weird fiction, Joshi has fashioned a “working” (Critical) definition, although he admits at best it is still a study in progress:

“As I see it, the weird tale must include the following broad definitions: fantasy, supernatural horror, nonsupernatural horror, and quasi-science fiction. All of these categories should be regarded as loose and nonexclusive, and there are some other subtypes that are probably amalgams or offshoots of those just mentioned…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 6-7).

But by Joshi’s own words, it is far too early to establish a more accessible definition – such things happen through the course of the application of Critical Theory to a broad selection of works – an enormous task awaiting the new Literary Critic of the future. But it does not mean that there are not rules orchestrating plot behind the scenes.

It does mean that as writers, we need to study what we have called subgenres, to place our own personal catalogs within the structure of genre. We need to be careful with the terms we use, to insist others are, and to demand clarification when someone declares a work unconventional.

Like the Literary Critic, we need to decide on the meaning of terms and their definitions in order to communicate what we want, what we need, and what we are doing. This is best achieved when we work with Literary Critics – not against them.

Joshi states, “I am not, as a result, prepared to define the weird tale, and venture to assert that any definition of it may be impossible. Recent work in this field has caused an irremediable confusion of terms such as horror, terror, the supernatural, fantasy, the fantastic, ghost story, Gothic fiction, and others. It does not appear that any single critic’s usage even approximates that of any other, and no definition of the weird tale embraces all types of works that can be plausibly assumed to enter into the scope of the term. This difficulty is direct result of the conception of the weird take as some well-defined genre to which some works ‘belong” and others do not.”

And yet, this is exactly the impression Critics and editors alike leave for the writer: that we should know and be able to replicate it at will... It’s what set me on the mission to root out a working writer’s definition.

And I did…Using everything I gave you supported above by our two best Critics, one canon writer, and a pair of editors.

So here it is, a makeshift list of already accepted Weird Conventions:

  • extraordinary characters
  • pervasive cosmic influence
  • identifiable philosophy/world view
  • typically presented in short story form
  • utilizing psychological realism over the supernatural
  • populated by unfamiliar/indescribable monsters
  • all roaming an intense and exotically tinged setting

Or, you can just put in your mind the definition I started with: “stories about things which cannot possibly happen….” Yet that which somehow, to our Horror…do.

Is Weird fiction a subgenre of Horror or is Horror a subgenre of Weird fiction?

I am probably not fully qualified to say, but I have my own opinion – that as powerful and inspiring as it is, Weird is a Literary subgenre in the same way Ghost Story and the Gothic are. I say it because like those two subgenres, there is a similar sense of creative constriction in the Horror invented – a kind of vanishing point the further away from Innsmouth we write (reflected in the frustration of Critics with the lack of Weird starch in the newer stories), and I like to think a genre generally frees the imagination, broadening at both ends.

While the best-written Weird spins marvelous offshoot tales draped over “indescribable and unnamed horrors,” it also acutely severs the trajectory from folk and fairy tales in favor of science and technology, leading me to believe it is as much a dead end in Horror because of the supremacy of Lovecraft in the same way that Joshi (and many others) claim M.R. James created a dead end to and for the Ghost Story: it isn’t that newer contributions cannot be entertaining or well-written, but it is increasingly hard to be “original” and stay within the invisible Weird confines.

And surprisingly, it is the Literary Critic who is making these same points. This is why I read S.T. Joshi. And Mieville. And any Literary Critical essay I can find on our genre. This is why I heavily recommend studying such essays and specifically Joshi’s – not because I agree with him (many times I do not) – but because he (almost exclusively and certainly most ravenously) is struggling to set the perimeters of genre and subgenre, to establish the conventions and definitions that will allow the serious work of Literary Criticism to begin.

I am (sadly) still awaiting a major work from China Mieville on the subject…(hint, hint, Mr. Mieville…)

To be part of that discussion you will have to do some homework, because clearly no one is going to just hand the information to you. But one thing is true: understanding more about what you are writing will make you a better writer. And maybe – just maybe, your opinion will come to matter.

Wouldn’t that be weird?

 

References

Guran, Paula. “Introduction: The Dark and Dangerous Forest.” The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

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

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

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

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.

 

“Getting” Weird: When a Subgenre is a Subgenre and its Shadow is Over More Than Innsmouth (Part One)


Here’s the question in debate: Is Horror a subgenre of Weird Fiction, or is Weird Fiction a subgenre of Horror?

When I returned to college and began to comprehend the organizational structure of Literature as established by Literary Criticism, I thought it would be fun to apply the substance of what I was learning to Horror. Why? Because I was convinced there was structure in Horror.

There had to be. Right?

But what I found not only surprised me; turned out it was interesting, too…Because Horror – having long been the splinter in the flesh to Literary purists – had only the structure and spurts of structure authors and Critics had sporadically given it. And once we left English soil, American Horror’s plan to re-invent itself instead resulted in a kind of Literary disorientation rife with distracting rumors and its own mythology.

To my surprise I discovered that there was no canon; there was historically no established Criticism by Critics other than essays and articles created to roundly condemn the genre as genre (and its writers by association); and that the very genre name was something even its authors historically argued over.

Horror – as the red-headed-stepchild of speculative fiction – continues to emerge from the darkness in this country, shedding forms as it grows, morphing from one interpretation to the next as it blindly seeks to discover and define itself.

No wonder the Critics are frustrated and our writers seem to wander and careen about the genre…

How then do we have a discussion, let alone a debate? Answer: we listen to the words of our best writers and the constructive comments of new Critics…. Then we all need to participate in the careful examination of points presented.

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

Perhaps the first and most surprising thing for this child of the sixties to trip over was the discovery that Horror was not always Horror. In fact, the name “Horror” for the genre was a relatively “recent” attachment. Horror – as we know it – began with names we no longer call it.

Those earlier names made it clear that stories told under the genre umbrella were largely sensational short works designed for quick chills and thrills with their folk roots showing: Ghost Stories, Spectral Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Thrillers, Tales of Terror, Gothic Fiction… Critics were quick to point out their campfire glow, their dependence on both superstition and the naiveté and/or rural links associated with the illiterate and uneducated masses.

In other words, the genre was considered childish and unsophisticated; it was most certainly not for a mature audience tuned to the marvels of modern scientific thought, and it was not a genre that represented our best profile. And as the genre blossomed at the precise time of the industrial revolution and the birth of technology, it was an unwelcome reminder of times ruled by emotions instead of analytical thought.

So emotion became both the hallmark of and the motivation behind the choice of genre name. The choice seemed likely: Horror was what you were promised in those early publications…. terror…fear…creepy… scary….eerie…frightening….amazing…astounding…unbelievable… indescribable… tales.

The parade of adjectives led directly to the name “Horror.” And it did so because it managed to encompass and corral all of the many subgenres that were developing their own rules and authors. This is not to say that all of those subgenres are subgenres of Horror… but that “Horror” was hung as a name over all of the writings in the genre – whatever its proper name should have been…

We cannot know what would have happened in the vacuum of a printing press-less world. Writers were already sharing and bending terms to their purposes, and perhaps it was Critical derision that resulted in the spotty criteria writers used to define and clarify subgenres. But despite the best efforts of some editors and some writers, terms and definitions began to swim and swirl in the creative currents until many became inseparable from each other.

Meanwhile even as the first publishing boom was happening and pulp dotted the writing landscape, a small detachment of writers began writing something “new”… and they were calling it “Weird.”

Lovecraft3

It was the emergence of the Weird tale – a proliferation of the strange, the supernatural, the cosmic dominated by unique group of writers who knew their fiction was “different” than the norm, and who did not consider themselves so much “horror” writers that sparked the venom anew of earlier Critics and now hold the academic interest of contemporary Critics.

But something weird happened to the Weird: while it began before Lovecraft, it seemed to culminate with his efforts, thereafter sliding into a combination of hackneyed Literary efforts and Critical disinterest. For Critics today, there is a noticeable pair of bookends surrounding this period, and to at least one modern Critic, the thread that made the Weird so fascinating a kind of story has been all but lost.

Joshi1

Says S.T. Joshi –the most prominent of Literary Critics now laying the Critical groundwork necessary for Literary Criticism in our genre – “It is my impression that what has frequently been termed the ‘ghettoization’ of weird fiction – especially in America – occurred as a direct result of the pulp magazines. All of the standard ‘genres’ we now recognize — mystery, horror, science fiction, western, romance – either grew out of the pulp magazines of the 1920’s (even though the pulps as originally conceived at the turn of the century were by no means specialized in terms of content) or received considerable impetus from them…” And here Joshi asserts “As a result, weird material in particular disappeared almost entirely from mainstream magazines, since there seemed to develop a notion that such material now had a market of its own.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4)

One has only to look at the assortment of magazines to see the coalescence of our genre into semi-firm molds of subgenre. Early writers had already began to weigh in, discussing in essays exchanged in letters and Amateur Press Associations the nature of what was being written – all as part of the argument that the genre had a glimmer of Literary offerings. But just as things might have been becoming clearer, the paperback was born…and back to the primal mud our genre crawled… and it may have taken the Weird with it.

The official market “tagging” of the genre by publishers as “Horror” sometime in the 1970’s all but obliterated the earlier discussions. Weird fiction – which had its own audience and writers – became an alternative adjective instead of the noun it was intended to be. Publishers – not being Critics – saw a sales-driven mission of lumping everything together into a broad category – whereas Critics and writers are wont to separate and define. Editors were somewhere in the middle, and have been trying to argue their way out for some time.

But perhaps the most damaging and consequential result was what happened to the rest of us… because the publishing boom did something else – instead of enlightening us all to the history and progression of the genre, it simply ceased to clearly define subgenres and instead vomited up a plethora of terms for which none of us had immediate association. No wonder we lost the ability to build on the Weird tradition in this country; we lost our vision of tradition altogether.

Those of us “coming of age” in the genre of the 1970’s and 80’s were awed by the tossing about of terms, certain that those who were using them knew what they meant. We never dreamed that they did not. And it has been the genre nerds who woke us up – the Lovecraft fans, the passionate heirs and curators of the Weird.

While the rest of us were luxuriating in the massive deluge of scary and strange stuff, even pretending we understood the term “Gothic,” we were losing everything we had gained in genre awareness. In this country, it was the Weird fan who kept us grounded by adhering to a bold and determined declaration of ‘genre.’ Those of us not disciples of the Weird were ignorantly adrift in a flotsam of alleged subgenres that shared and cross-pollinated names and distorted conventions.

While Horror was exploding onto the popular fiction scene, it seemed that American writers became disoriented instead of inspired. It did not matter that writers referred to what we now consider classic works; we did not feel the connection to recreate it. If you read American 1980’s Horror, what started out as inspired eventually becomes circular and redundant. Today’s American Horror is still stuck in that rut, prompting many of us as writers and fans to return to Lovecraft and Poe to try to figure out where we lost that thread of continuity while others try to hide behind the concerted effort to force the genre into a more Literary straitjacket.

I don’t know how it feels for European writers, for British writers of the genre… But here in the U.S. it is confusion resulting from our lost or disordered history that seems to dominate and dog our fiction. It prompts both editors and Critics to say we don’t comprehend what has already been done or done to death in the genre.

That in turn has caused a resurgence of interest in the Weird – and in Lovecraft specifically. We may not understand what we feel, but we know we feel it in Lovecraft’s shadow. So we sit there in it… enveloped in tentacles, begging Cthulhu to tuck some Horror in our minds. Editors feel it, too: we are awash in Lovecraftian-themed anthologies, struggling to recapture the elements that make Weird fiction so effective a storytelling device. But then we ran into a complication. Whether it is subgenre or genre, where are the rules?

Suddenly those of us who thought we could write it find no guidance and empty references to unnamed conventions and undefined formulas.

What is Weird Fiction? And if so many people can reference it, why can’t anyone define it?

We thought it was us.

Yet the more we set out to understand what was “wanted by the genre” (itself a paradox because we have abdicated who the authority of the genre is and publishers are never the genre even as this is who we continue to look to even now), the more the structure of genre evaporated. Our conventions are convoluted and polluted. Our fiction is substandard and hybridized and we feel it but cannot name it. The epiphany will come from Innsmouth…of that we all seem certain.

What we have to realize is that the train came off the rails with the hand-over-fist American publishing boom of the 1980’s. We buried the essays and drowned the voices of the early genre writers with a flood of new writers seeking careers in storytelling. Certainly a peek at all of the financial reasons is self-explanatory, but only a handful of thoughtful editors who placed important Critical writings and author commentary in the front matter and endpapers of classic collections of the genre kept our history from completely going dark. When we began to follow the Pied Piper and call the genre Horror, we ceased to see what else it might have been.

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

Now we are scraping all of these commentaries together, and our first Literary Critics are having the task of sorting out exactly where the genre was heading before the boom of reading, writing, and publishing that inflated the 1980’s into a wanton writer’s market. As already stated, prior to that time Horror had been addressed by many other names, and had already established a long and tumultuous history of impoverished writers condemned for their artistic choices.

When the emergence of the mass market paperback created the explosion of affordable fiction which seeded the Horror boom, it also created a generation of readers who knew the genre by one name only: Horror. For most of us, “Weird” as a term has no traction in our memories, and there is no clear understanding in our composition of contemporary writing. We are Horror writers, we say… and isn’t “Weird” just a synonym for “strange?”

Mieville 2

This is where newer writers need the Literary Critic – or at least those with Critical analytic capabilities such as writer and Critic China Mieville – who can help put our socks on straight. Mieville not only helps us greatly by reminding us that the “invention” of the tentacle heavily influences the texture of what should be considered Weird, but that “Weird fiction [shares] with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that [is] in fact saturated with the uncanny.”(Mieville  xiii)

Our hackneyed understanding of the Weird has now spilled into our own interpretations of what we are trying to write, or think we are writing. It is presenting a problem for some Critics, who themselves are trying to unravel a clear understanding of what the effective Weird was and now find themselves awash in what some writers are calling Weird fiction that appears to be not. And sometimes it is when something is diluted that the pure solution becomes more obvious.

The more Critics look at the original writings and writers of the Weird, the bigger, more viable its legitimate core seems to get…So much so, that some are starting to propose that Weird fiction encapsulates Horror, and not the other way around.

Asserts S.T. Joshi, “Strictly speaking I regard ‘horror’ as a subset of the weird, since fantasy of the Dunsany or Tolkien type is just as much a branch of weird fiction as any other, and ‘horror’ itself must be subdivided into supernatural and nonsupernatural horror” (Joshi-Modern Weird 3). For Joshi, the impervious structure needed to provide a broad foundation for subgenres is already fractured when attempting to apply the name “Horror” to the whole genre – a Critical sign that it cannot be the parent of Weird offspring and is therefore not the correct name to use.

Mieville proposes that “Traditionally, genre horror is concerned with the irruption of dreadful forces into a comforting status quo—one which the protagonists frantically scrabble to preserve. By contrast, Lovecraft’s horror [Lovecraft being the towering genius among those writers of fantastic fiction for whom plot is simply not the point] is not one of intrusion but realization.” (Mieville xii-xiii)

While Mieville’s description of the Weird simply seems to differentiate between what we perceive as Horror and what we experience as the Weird, he actually has something in common with Joshi. It is important to note that like Joshi’s interpretation, in Mieville’s look at the two in the context of a Horror versus Weird as genre argument, it is again the Weird that provides greater Literary foundation which seems more potent and Literarily promising than any singular assemblage of the moving parts of Horror.

This is not to say that sometimes the argument for Weird as a more likely independent and Literary genre doesn’t get – well – weird…

Another – and I find odd – part of this dissatisfaction with the term “Horror” is encapsulated by Joshi’s exasperated question, “What other mode of writing is designated by an emotion?” As Joshi interprets it, “horror” is a term rendered even more inadequate for him as a Critic because “The term ‘horror’ also suggests” – and he emphasizes – “(falsely, to my mind) that the arousal of fear is somehow the prime concern of weird writing” instead of the more Literary depiction of world view. (Joshi-The Modern Weird 3)

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

I find that this part of the argument against the term “Horror” implies that the word “Horror” as applied to genre involves only the emotion of fear and not its cousins – dread, discomfort, disturbance, disgust. I find that both Horror AND Weird fiction has some of those elements on a regular basis (as apparently does Mieville (“Lovecraft’s stories …move tightly and precisely, evoking growing foreboding…aggregating a sense of dread and awe” (xii)) – and those adjectives are especially evident in the descriptions used to define cosmic horrors and human failures. So while I empathize with Joshi on this point, I do not agree with him. I do agree with Joshi, however, that the intrusion of “world view” in Weird fiction is of Literary blood, and is an important point in establishing the criteria that would define Weird fiction as a genre/subgenre.

For Literary Critics, this relevance to bigger things – to the real issues that shape and affect humanity – is what defines Literature. And as such, it is the bread crumb trail that helps identify when something in genre writing is bigger than genre. It is most certainly there in the Weird. But is Literature always the biological parent? Or might the parent be a gangly, disproportioned and lovingly awkward mutt?

With so much confusion and overlap of genre and subgenre, the muddle of terms, Joshi admits with considerable exasperation: “I do not know what one is to do about this whole issue.” However just because a matter is entangled by centuries of amateur theories does not mean it should not be UN-entangled….clarified….and committed to. And Joshi himself cannot seem to let it go, because the question and argument of which came first haunts all of his work on Criticism in our genre.

So while I do not agree that “Horror” being an emotion disqualifies it from being a genre name, I do agree with Mr. Joshi that study and discussion of this messy subject is necessary to sort it all out. And I agree that if Literary Critics can do so with legitimate theoretical reasons for creating a better terminology for the genre, then it should be done. We may all have our preferences, but the truth of the matter is that until we settle on terms and definitions, we cannot present arguments or press works through Critical Theories.

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

Deciding what we call ourselves may seem a moot point, but for Critics, the name of the structural tree from which we hang our Literature does matter. And it should matter to us as writers, so we can be certain we are delivering the goods to our readers, and making conscious choices about the quality and creative direction of our fiction.

Like the new Literary Critic, we need to revisit the discussion that was in play during the time of Lovecraft… Because if we are to argue the Literary merits of the genre, we have to start thinking more like the Literary Critic and that means we must be looking at what we write and where it falls on the scale of genre definitions. And that means we must not be adverse to the reordering of terms and conventions.

It’s time to go there… and due to the length of the discussion, we will in the succeeding post.

 

References

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

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction (From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York, Hippocampus Press, c2012.

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

Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. New York: the Modern Library, c2005.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

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

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2011.