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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is also what Horror is all about.

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

Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.

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

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

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

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

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The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems a very real and very dark possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sredni Vashtar demands it.

 

The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)

Novels

The Chronicles of Clovis

When William Came

 Short Stories

A Bread and Butter Miss
A Defensive Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 References

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Robbing Horror From Other Cradles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens when we have outgrown that narrow Worldview?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 It’s All About Language and Culture and Horror Underfoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Horror Authors Unseen – A List From Here to Everywhere Else

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

Otsuichi (Japan) Goth

Asamatsu Ken (Japan) Queen of K’n-Yan

Mariko Koike (Japan) The Graveyard Apartment

Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland) I Remember You

John Ajvide Lindquist (Sweden) Let the Right One In

Karin Tidbeck (Sweden) Amatka

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

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

Violet Kupersmith (Vietnamese American) The Frangipani Hotel

Stephen Graham Jones (Native American) Mapping the Interior

David Bowles (Mexican American) Chupacabra Vengeance

Jeremias Gotthelf (Germany) The Black Spider

Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) You Should Have Left

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) Hex

John Harwood (Australia) The Ghost Writer

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

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

Cherie Dimaline (Canadian First Nations) The Marrow Thieves

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

Samuel Marolla (Italy) Black Tea and Other Tales

Giorgia de Maria (Italy) The Twenty Days of Turin

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Fever Dream

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

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

Julio Cortezar (Argentina) Tomada House

Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) Demonia (and Other Stories)

J.F. Gonzalez (Spanish American) Clickers

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

Andres Barba (Spain) Such Small Hands

Zhou Haohui (China) Valley of Terror

Han Kang (South Korea) The Vegetarian

Rene Depestre (Haiti) Hadriana in All My Dreams

Carolina Sanin (Columbia) The Children

Sadegh Hedayat (Iran) The Blind Owl

Otessa Mosfegh (Croatian Iranian) Eileen

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (Egypt) Beyond Nature

Ania Ahlborn (Polish American) Within These Walls

Anna Starobinets (Russia) The Recrudescence of the Cold

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

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

Nuzo Onoh (Nigerian British) The Reluctant Dead

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

 

 

Writers in Exile: Is the Horror Genre Killing Itself?


We keep hearing how everything is ok.

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

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

These are mixed messages. All of us are confused.

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens in Horror is Not Staying in Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And do they have that right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Booms Collapse

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

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

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

But this is a tale of dominoes falling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this means that the game is on.

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

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

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

It means we need to get our ship in order.

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

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

 

Writing. In Other Genres.

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

Because it IS their job…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s only fair.

And it is Literarily normal….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

We can start by acknowledging the contributions of Tanith Lee.

 

T1

When Horror Is Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about disappearing every writer that comes after…

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

We step over them like they are poisonous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it is ok to be Tanith Lee?

T2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: then it is a subgenre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T4

Still Tanith, After All This Time

Horror is a big genre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When exactly are we ready to shed the mask?

T5

Alas, sexuality remains different, somehow more personally threatening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you want to see the blooms?

T6

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tanith Lee: Why Was One of Horror’s Best Female Writers Blacklisted? A Women In Horror Month Tribute (Part 1)


This is what I remember about reading Tanith Lee:

Dark, haunting prose that made me feel like I was reading it with the lights out; potent and pregnant narrative that was so Gothic and eerie that I thought of Poe; characters that to this day remain vibrant in my head…

I remember devouring paperbacks written by Lee – full of envy of her mastery and use of language, somehow more accessible and less lofty than that of writers like Anne Rice, but the kind of prose that lingers long after it is read. And I remember being stupid enough to give those books away. It was a product of the times, that way of thinking – trusting that decades could scroll by and one would always be able to find another paperback copy somewhere. I was wrong.

Years later, when I wanted to re-read and compare her vampire trilogy The Blood Opera Sequence to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, I went looking to repurchase those books. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I could not find them. I could not find anything by Tanith Lee anywhere. I looked in vain for decades…She was neither in used bookstores, new book bookstores, nor Amazon at the time.

It struck me as odd: Lee was a Horror standard for a while, part of that now extinct Horror Section. In fact, that was how I found her. And while I don’t remember any reason ever being given as to why she seemed to have simply evaporated, her books missing from bookstores, what I found out much later surprised – and disappointed – me. It caused me to look with wrinkled brow at our Establishment – the same way it did when we “mysteriously” lost Clive Barker.

Because now she HAS died; we quietly lost Tanith Lee with little more than a peep from the Horror genre. Only the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres claimed her body of work:

“’Lee died peacefully in her sleep May 24, 2015 after a long illness,’ according to Locus Magazine…More details have not emerged; in 2010, Lee revealed she had been treated for breast cancer on at least two occasions.” https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/26/409726390/prolific-fantasy-and-science-fiction-writer-tanith-lee-has-died

What happened to Tanith Lee?

TL1

Something Rotten: When the Establishment Goes Too Far

It appears to be about sex. And that is weird, because isn’t all Horror in some way about sex?

This time however, it was even about the Literary stuff: about the underpinnings of feminism and gender issues – about gender identity and sexual orientation. Tanith Lee, you see, never shied away from LGBT characters, storylines, or situations. What exactly was it about Tanith Lee or her writing that “someone” saw to it she was blacklisted? And worse, that she was never even told WHY she was being blackballed? Was she Anne Rice before Anne Rice was cool? Was she ahead of her time – at least for the Horror Establishment?

No, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have never heard of Tanith Lee. Even those of us who loved her work have consistently found it hard to find her work – especially in the United States, and especially after the Technology Extermination Plan of all things print. We have as a genre, in fact, lost a lot of accessibility to older titles because of Technology…Lee included.

But Tanith Lee was also increasingly hard to find because of what appears to be nothing less than bullying – the professional kind, by the very people who should be immune from nasty, personally motivated censorship – all because of her alleged queer writing as it was claimed she claimed in later work was channeled through a dead gay man. Indeed, there are such quotes, but they are (in her defense) not waved about in crazy fashion, but delivered with the matter-of-face sincerity of personal belief.

Yes, okay. I get it. Most folks are just not into the whole New Agey spirit channeling thing left over from the 1970’s. But let’s be honest: true or not, believed or not, the woman wrote awesome fiction – relevant fiction; and everyone has their right to their own beliefs. With some of the first featured gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual characters in Horror and thereby “popular mainstream” fiction, what Lee did was make an important contribution to contemporary fiction – including our genre.

While some may argue (as though to distance themselves from an awkward author scenario or politically delicate LGBT fictional subjects) that if this was part of the emergence and journey of Queer fiction (and thereby more “Other” than Horror), doesn’t that make it all the more important to the Horror genre?

Sure, it becomes yet another subgenre. But isn’t it also an important one? Doesn’t it Literarily speak to our times? Doesn’t it educate its readers?

Why, really, was Tanith Lee ostracized? This, after having written almost 300 short stories and over 90 novels… and in multiple genres including Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Poetry, and Mysteries, often credited with breaking the glass ceiling in genre, and being the first female writer to win the British Fantasy Award.

Why, indeed? Does Horror have some sudden, new and exclusive sacred criteria? Are some subjects, some human conditions suddenly taboo?

And is there a reason Lee and all of her work seems banished from Horror (at least while she was alive and it mattered, ye Best Of people…) whereas openly gay Clive Barker is welcomed back whenever we can get him? Why is Lee treated differently? Hasn’t she paid her dues? Earned her laurels? Does she go too far because her characters are clearly wrestling with gender issues and identity? Or because she claims she sees dead people…and takes notes?

Says Lee of her exile in an interview five years before her death: “Recently, alas, with today’s climate, I have apparently been outlawed by those large “major” companies through whom, for over thirty years, I’ve previously had quantities of work. I don’t entirely understand that, either. But naturally I hope that things will improve, and that all the very good young and new writers I have glimpsed around me will prosper, female and male together. (Gidney)

TL2

Photo by Beth Gwinn https://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

Women in Horror: On Living Down to Stereotypes

Yet again a female writer has drawn the ire and fire of influential powers and publishing houses… all because someone in power saw the need to exact punishment for freedom of artistic thought and speech.

In fact in the 1990’s, Lee so struggled to find publication and her readers toiled to find her works in kind, that many of her fans often wrote to enquire if she had died. Between the damage that Technology had imposed upon the Publishing industry and some self-righteous censorship, we almost lost her works entirely.

Why is this? Could it be that because her work was so sexually infused that “someone” decided she needed to be reined in lest she burst the sexual bubble so many of us have been forced and coerced into living in?

Is Horror so the personal property of a certain type of white male writer that only certain types of infractions are to be tolerated – the ones that titillate the ruling class? Not the ones the rest of us struggle with, or struggle to understand?

Already we see a trend toward censorship within the genre – the long list of plot themes or damaged characters we are told “not to bother” to write. We are told stories about surviving sexual assault or child abuse are not welcome – at least if they are “troubling” tales instead of Harry Potter-magic-overcomes-all types of tales. For some reason, all of a sudden it is not a preferred thing for Horror to represent the honest truth – something that should have many a late nineteenth century female Gothic writer spinning in her grave.

Is this part of something bigger? Is this about uneven censorship against rebellious – dangerous – women? Women who confront and sometimes live in politically precarious waters? Is that why we insist on clarifying that Lee is “normal”… feeding readers details that explain that she is “married and heterosexual” ? (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

 

TL3

On the contrary, describing human monsters and exquisite details of sexual violence on women as part of a plotline is somehow ok. A woman’s death and dismemberment the Establishment will allow, but harping on the PTSD that comes from survival is just too much of a downer. Boring. Unworthy. And God forbid if we tackle gender identity along with it.

What the hell kind of message is that? And should we be surprised then that we have that same heavy hand of censorship plucking works out of our canon that contain certain unsavory details we don’t want to “have to explain” to our youth?

I don’t want to have to explain The Holocaust, either. But some things are righteously necessary.

How is it that the one single largest social challenge of the day – that of gender identity and sexual orientation is so freaking scary that we cannot abide its literature?

And are we really so shallow as to feign that fear and abhorrence forced us to draw insinuation that channeling a dead guy for a novel is just frankly too “crazy” a notion, and gender-muddy characters too horrifying to keep publishing Lee?

What was so scary? That the dead guy was dead, or that he was a gay dead guy? Anybody got an attic?

TL4

Lee’s worthy Vampire Trilogy…

At what point do we grow up and start acting like reasonable adults so all of us and our children can simply breathe? At what point do we stop running ahead of the coach in an attempt to prevent an imagined accident?

I most certainly “get” it…I repeat, I grew up in the sixties and seventies. And no one wants life to be complicated for our youth, and our brains are all weary thinking about this stuff. But it is we who are complicating it. What was it my generation harped on so long and so loud? Live and let live?

And what about that whole Literary argument? The Big Goal of Horror? Tanith Lee was always there, right in the mix of all things Feminist Theory:

‘I was very interested by the eastern idea of death as a woman, which I used in the ‘Flat Earth’ books. In the type of eastern literature where death was personified as a woman; women were considered dangerous and untamed and pariah material, and that was why death was in female form. Conversely, in the western literature where I came across death personified as a male, it was because men were seen as powerful, and death was seen as powerful, so he had to be male. So it’s two ways of looking at death, as well as two ways of looking at gender.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

Since when is a competent writer’s taking on a contemporary and contentious subject like feminist or LGBT issues by writing believable characters seated in that controversy NOT ok? NOT Literary?

It may not make us comfortable. But maybe we don’t deserve to be.

TL5

Still Mistress of Her Domain

If I had to point to the one influential female writer of Horror in the 1980s other than Anne Rice, it would be Tanith Lee.

Renowned for her use of poetic prose and imagery, she is also known for writing the previously referred to other vampire series…The Blood Opera Sequence, a trilogy of books titled Dark Dance (1992), Personal Darkness (1993), and Darkness, I (1994) and a Horror standard, The Secret Books of Paradys, which included The Book of the Damned (1988),The Book of the Beast (1988),The Book of the Dead (1991), and The Book of the Mad (1993).

Let me say it again. Over 300 short stories and 90 novels. And awards…my God the awards:

Nebula Awards

  • 1975: The Birthgrave (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Red As Blood (nominated, best short story)

World Fantasy Awards[31]

  • 1979: Night’s Master (nominated, best novel)
  • 1983: “The Gorgon” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Elle Est Trois, (La Mort)” (winner, best short story)
  • 1984: “Nunc Dimittis” (nominated, best novella)
  • 1984: Red As Blood, or, Tales From The Sisters Grimmer (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1985: Night Visions 1 (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1987: Dreams Of Dark And Light (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1988: Night’s Sorceries (nominated, best anthology/collection)
  • 1999: “Scarlet And Gold” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2006: “Uous” (nominated, best novella)
  • 2013: Life Achievement Award[32]

World Horror Convention

  • 2009: Grand Master Award [33]

British Fantasy Awards

  • 1979: Quest For The White Witch (nominated, best novel)
  • 1980: Death’s Master (winner, best novel)[34]
  • 1980: “Red As Blood” (nominated, best short story)
  • 1981: Kill The Dead (nominated, best novel)
  • 1999: “Jedella Ghost” (nominated, best short story)
  • 2000: “Where Does The Town Go At Night?” (nominated, best short story)

Lambda Awards

  • 2010: Disturbed by Her Song (nominated, best LGBT speculative fiction)

 

She didn’t deserve to be sent into the darkness. And we, her fans, need to insure she is not kept imprisoned there.

Reports Laura Flood in an article on Lee, “Lee has written tons of books; these are some of her earliest, and rather hard to get hold of. It’s a shame, as are her comments to Locus that “if anyone ever wonders why there’s nothing coming from me, it’s not my fault. I’m doing the work. No, I haven’t deteriorated or gone insane. Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print”. And on her own website she says:”As for new novels, earlier plans are becalmed. When I know I’ll let you know. Otherwise, no ‘large’ house at the moment has taken any interest in any of my work. Macmillan and Hodder both refused/dropped offered proposals. Tor passed on reprinting Red as Blood. Others I have approached don’t reply at all.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee

On what planet is this ok? And how do we move forward respecting our own Establishment – editors, publishers, Critics all – if this type of blackballing is acceptable practice when a woman “gets out of line” in our genre? Or even the Clive Barkers among us?

Why hasn’t anyone in “authority” bothered to address this, and all of the mysterious exits of writers who clearly chose to “shake the dust from their feet” and give up on Horror?

”Suddenly, I just can’t get anything into print. And apparently I’m not alone in this. There are people of very high standing, authors who are having problems. So I have been told. In my own case, the more disturbing element is the editor-in-chief who said to me, ‘I think this book is terrific. It ought to be in print. I can’t publish it – I’ve been told I mustn’t.’ The indication is that I’m not writing what people want to read, but I never did.” http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

“TOLD I MUSTN’T”!?! By what Power? By which Horror God? I want names.

Because when a writer’s entire catalog is suppressed, when you cannot find her work and you don’t even know if she is alive because NO ONE is publishing her…How can anyone possibly say with truth that she is writing what people don’t want to read?

I wanted to read her. I wanted to repurchase books I stupidly got rid of in various moves. I wanted her back on my bookshelf because I am PROUD to have her there. And I wanted to read more of what she was writing – no matter in what genre, no matter with what kinds of characters… No matter if she thinks a dead gay guy is channeling it. But the caveat was and remains I cannot find her…

It took a while for me to find out why. And it has made me furious.

Says Storm Constantine in the introduction of a recently “republished” ebook edition of Dark Dance:

“…printed copies of the novels have been unavailable for many years. Immanion Press’s republication of this trilogy is part of our commitment to help keep Tanith Lee’s work available in book form – as we believe good books should be. Any reader who has not read Dark Dance before should leave this introduction – or review – until they have finished the book…” Storm Constantine, November 2017, Dark Dance (The Blood Opera Sequence Book 1) (Kindle Edition)by Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine.

Thank you, Immanion Press, for being the one light in the darkness – for seeing exactly what Tanith Lee’s fans have known for decades, and for giving her back to us.

Now it is time for the Horror Establishment to reclaim her, to demand she be included in the evaluation of foundational authors in the Horror canon elect. It is time for an apology if not an explanation of shortcomings and owning the misstep.

Tanith Lee deserves the recognition we so stupidly refused her in Life. What say you, Horror Establishment? Will you make this right?

So here it is: this is my attempt to poison the minds of the Tanith-deprived: READ TANITH LEE. Wherever and whenever you find her work. You will not be sorry. But you may need to weigh in, to make sure we keep bringing her name up to Literary Critics for our genre. For sure, she will be one of the most fascinating writers that you never heard of in Horror.

And as for our genre, for our Establishment, for those who sent a perfectly good Horror writer into the arms of another genre and backlist oblivion: congratulations. You proved Lee right… she most certainly was a dangerous woman…

And for a brief time, she was ours.

TL6

1947-2015

“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are – whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish – that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”… (Tanith Lee), The Birthgrave

 

References

Constantine, Storm. Introduction. Dark Dance: Book One of the Blood Opera Sequence by Tanith Lee © 1992, 2nd edition 2017, eBook edition through KDP 2018 An Immanion Press Edition published through KDP, http://www.immanion–press.com

Ennis, Dawn. “ Remembering Tanith Lee, Celebrated Author of Queer Science Fiction.” Advocate,       May 26, 2015. Retrieved 1/30, 2019 from https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction

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

Flood, Allison.“World of fantasy: Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.” Alison Flood’s world of fantasy Books , Fri 27 Aug 2010 06.05 EDT, as retrieved 1/9/2019 fromhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee  

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

 

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.

Late-Breaking, Horror-Shaking News: Editor Paula Guran Inches Toward Retirement


If you don’t know who Paua Guran is, you aren’t reading enough Horror…

Guran has been one of the three major contemporary editorial contributors to the genre, most recognized for her excellent work on the Prime Books annual “Best of ” collection, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, but also for her prolific work on countless anthologies that for decades have served up some of the more interesting and innovative Horror anthologies – often with a delicious side of Dark Fantasy and fairy tale influence.

She is, by far, my favorite American Horror editor. And in times when it is increasingly hard to get our hands on British Horror, her collections have offered a complimentary creative contrast to Ellen Datlow, whose influence continues to showcase better constructed Horror with Literary inclinations, but without that feel of adventure. Guran has been the “heart” of the genre, going for the emotional center.

In her latest annual Best collection for 2018—her forty fifth anthology – she announces in the About the Editor note that “after more than a decade of full-time editing, she’s now freelancing..” having downsized her life and her work to more relaxed levels with “mixed feelings.” (Year’s 511)

She is not alone in those feelings… American Horror is taking a hit.

And I have one thing to say:

Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!

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Say It Isn’t So…

The rise of the anthology in Horror fiction has done several very important things: it has provided a forum not unlike early Horror magazines in which readers have a chance to “discover” writers they could not find anywhere else, to “discover” new writers in the genre, and to get a feel for what Horror writers are writing about. But they also have provided a unique opportunity to understand what the field of editing is all about – not the sweat and grit of proof-reading or slush-pile skiing, but the kind of work editors used to do – back when they discovered writers and nurtured them a bit, guiding them into other publishing and awards territory – in essence, contributing to the genre an editorial style – not so much as a star-maker, but as a representative of chosen stories, subgenres, and “accent”…

In the Olden Days, readers read books curated by certain editors. Editors had fan-bases. We seem to have lost that connection with editors. And it is a shame.

Datlow, I think, will always be underestimated by readers for the work she has done for the genre – because her anthologies carry less obvious “voice” and because of her own preference for what I see as literary artistry. But Guran will be equally obviously missed for the solid sense of presence and voice in her selections. Where Datlow to me represents refined technique, Guran is just plain fun. With Datlow, I see something of the intended editorial future of the genre; with Guran I see the pulp roots of yesteryear bleeding through. Between them both, we had a fine balancing act doling out tradition and inspiring different aspects of our Horror future.

Now it feels like the wheels are coming off…

We are losing a highly representative voice of “accessible” and “achievable” Horror goals, leaving some of us to feel we are being refined right out of our own genre.

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Guran has been around the genre for some time…quietly rattling the cages of some pretty awesome beasts. According to http://paulaguran.com/about/:

“In an earlier life she produced DarkEcho, a weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others, for over six years (1994-2001) and was recognized with two unprecedented back-to-back Bram Stoker Awards for Nonfiction from the Horror Writers Association (1998 and 1999) as well as an International Horror Guild Award (1999) and a World Fantasy nomination (1997). She began producing the horror portion of the pioneering professional Web publication OMNI Online in 1996 and became the Literature Editor of Universal Studios’ HorrorOnline in October 1998. (Many of the now-outdated interviews, articles, and reviews she produced from 1995-2006 are archived on DarkEcho website—which she will, someday, cleanup and sort out—she hopes.)”

Do you realize what an awesome resume that is? All before she became the Senior Editor for Prime Books…

Yet there is more to Guran’s impact upon the Horror genre.

Ultimately, a major part of her legacy-in-progress will be her own contribution to the “shading” and gender-blending of Horror. She has been integral along with Datlow in the decisive attempt to bring more diversity to the ranks of published authors. Between the two of them, we see far more women being published and being awarded in the genre, far more minority voices, helping to eradicate that myth that only white males write great Horror.

But we have so much farther to go… I hope Guran has an understudy…. somewhere out there…

Someone who will rise in the genre to become the kind of editor she has been – one with eyes in the back of her head and at least one of them focused sharply on the future.

But editing is not something that publishers seem interested in grooming. They seem product-focused, not genre-focused… seeking what sells, not what shapes.

And our educational system is conducting itself in very similar ways. Editing tends to be one course in all of the university writing or classics undergraduate major courses, too-often about nonfiction, and it often isn’t required. No one talks about how to edit fiction. No one teaches it. No one really writes about it.

In fact, the only way one can learn it is by teaching oneself – reading other writers’ work, reading how-to’s written for writers on how to “fix” flawed fiction, reading essays on the emotional and etheric experience of editing. Nothing is out there offering a blow-by-blow instruction or introduction. And there are just not enough established and reputable publications out there who will hire an editor-wannabe for the purpose of mentoring into a powerhouse editor of a single genre.

This is slipshod and irresponsible. And it is all we have. The field of editing has become crowded with MFA folk who know no more about editing than I do, who are also writers who would rather be writing than editing, who “fall into” editing opportunities without any particular credentials or training, and often who appear to be some kind of network hire, a “connected” person instead of a proven editorial savant.

How can we get great editors if we are treating them the same way we are treating writers in our genre? Staring out over an open field of wildflowers with a glassy-eyed shrug, and deciding to judge only those who make it into a special-delivered vase on our desk?

We need editors who are trained….Like it needs to be its own DEGREE…. supported by study in classic Literature, Literary Criticism, and training in Craft.

We also need more flexibility in how academics look at the genres. Sure, genre writing is rarely Literary. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be capably executed or that its editors should not be very well-read in the genre they intend to edit.

Between training writers and training editors in mechanical basics and academic Criticism in and around the foundation of Classic Literature – how can we help but grow a few Literary writers and better readers? How can we miss creating better editors who create better books, which create better sales and better Publishers?

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Eclectic is Good. And It is Necessary.

As much as an editor like Datlow is to be appreciated, editors like Paula Guran become beloved. The only predictable thing in her anthologies is the unpredictable… There will be tales that are offbeat, unique in protagonist or setting… clear roots to the better traditions of Horror no matter how campy or Literary. And that is important.

Eclectic is good.

Eclectic is necessary.

And we cannot let our Establishment ever forget that, because in the rush to Literary style we have started to lose some serious essence.

It has often felt as though in our genre we are so focused on elevating our Craft, of impressing dead Literary Critics that we are totally forgetting the fan out there – the reader of Horror who wants some fun along with that technique, who wants more than anything to be scared – if only for a moment.

Everything in Horror does not have to be perfect.

Perfection is what we aspire to…It is for the Poes and Lovecrafts among us… even if those unknown writers are outside the field of current favoritism, as Poe and Lovecraft once were.

We cannot and should not denigrate writers of lesser genre fiction – those reckless storytellers of urban myth and trite, overused plots, nor those writers whose voices speak from outside our comfortable norm. From those places we might just see a writer take off on jets of inspiration and innovation. And it is those writers who need to read the work of other chance-takers. It is those writers who need to feel the recoil when the patterns of poor technique or overdone plots become obvious – but like with new and would-be editors – who can’t if they don’t read enough of all of that lesser-regarded writing for creative comparison to the Greats of the genre – past, present, or future…

This is what an editor like Guran offers: diversity from the roots up: from who is writing to what is being written about…

For example, in the 2018 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are works and writers such as  “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a Pueblo/African American Writer…”The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson, African American writer, “Little Digs” by Lisa L. Hannett, Australian National Science Fiction Award Winner…”Moon, and Memory, and Muchness” by Katherine Vaz, a Portuguese- American writer. This is genre diversity long over-due.

Guran’s anthologies remind me of the old Weekly Readers we used to get in elementary school – along with the book selections at the end that shaped the reading I do today. Her work is that “box of chocolates”… in no way the “Best” of Horror as much as it is the Year’s Great Horror Stories… Tales to inspire, to unsettle, to tease…

I slipped into a funk when I read Paula Guran’s note about pulling back from her editorial proliference… Now what will I do? I thought….maybe I should go back and collect the anthologies I missed that she edited… prolong the withdrawal a little longer…

I realize she is still working… at reduced volume, at reduced pace…

But I think this is a canary -in- the-coal-mine moment for Horror…

We need to do something, because how long we have Datlow is another pending question….And then what?

What, Horror gods, will we do to stop the editorial hemorrhaging? Because great editors are as rare as great writers: they deserve discovery and mentoring… They deserve educating.

How do we fix this without making an actual effort to do so? And how do we look our fans in the eye if we just stand around blowing up inflatable monsters instead of making a decisive effort to properly seat our genre at the academic table at just the moment when Literary Critics are beginning their work to define and establish our genre as the legitimate Literary entity we have all long known it is?

Paula Guran is scooching toward retirement. Fans like me are screaming into pillows. We better do something…before we lose everything we have worked for…

We better start caring about how great editors are made. Because I know we have other editors editing out there, but we all come with expiration dates. And for fans like me, they will never be Paula Guran.

 

G4

“Interested in writing and/or editing? Here’s a link to a unique Editors’ Roundtable that features general and specific comments on a promising story from some of the most respected editors in the field: Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Liz Gorinsky, James Patrick Kelly, Nick Mamatas, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams.” http://paulaguran.com/