More Care & Feeding of Genre: a Proposition for the Naming & Definitions of Horror Subgenres


One of the problems we have AS a genre is the inability or unwillingness to commit to a structure of subgenre.

And while this doesn’t sound like a big deal, it adds up to one because this is part of the foundation of our determining what IS and IS NOT Horror.

And whether HORRROR is HORROR.. or Weird. Or something else..

In order to be both recognized by the Literary Critical field (a goal argued and fought for by generations of writers and fans) AND to be able to properly sort and recognize the vast depth and variety of the genre, we have to commit to some structure. We need to officially claim names for things, define terms, and establish some basic criteria.

Since I can’t find that anywhere, no one is discussing it in the genre or the genre’s Leadership, then I am going to do the arrogant thing and try to start the conversation we are not-having in the genre.

Keep in mind, I am NOT a Literary Critic, I am NOT a professional genre editor, I am NOT a publisher or an academic. I am, however, a lifelong fan, a lay-theorist, and a writer (however good or bad) OF the genre. (So consider me a remnant of that Old 80s’ Horror Boom opinionated conversation group.)

Here is what I think. Now YOU think. And let’s start talking…

Horror’s Missing Hierarchy of Subgenre and Convention

When I was a teenager reading all things Horror, there was constant “genre noise” being made by fans, reviewers, theorists, Literary Critics and editors. Opinions were abundant and substantial; some were armchair authorities, knowledgeable in the history of the genre and its authors; others were passionate supporters of the Classic authors or the Paperback Kings and Queens of popular Horror, pulp fans and Literary defenders. Some were voices from within the industry – editors who made discoveries and choices and quality observations, Critics who were themselves at war over what Literature really is and should be and how it was made. There was always a buzz, debates, arguments and theories to be found in magazines, radio shows, newspapers, and paperback front matter. It was such a constant background hum, it now seems weird to hear absolutely nothing.

Yet here we are.

The closest thing we have to a genre platform is the Horror Writer’s Association. Yet not all are welcome there except to listen to the wisdom of the Chosen Ones. And that is the problem: discussion can only be had when there are differences of opinion and conflicting angles of approach. If the HWA is “it” for debate, we have lost our legitimacy as a genre. We have silenced the majority of voices. And I personally believe there are such voices and fellow-opinionated folk out there, we just have no official forum upon which to vent. And THAT means…

We are not listening to our audience.

So what happened to our genre? Where did all of those voices go, and how do we get them – or their modern equivalent – back in the game?

And what has that got to do with our missing subgenre hierarchy and those oft-alluded to yet never-defined conventions?

Unfortunately a lot. Without words, rules, and definitions, we cannot have discussions. And maybe that has become part of the plan. But I do think that a lot of our silence is a direct result of the upending of our publishing structure, of the delisting of so very many (former) Horror authors, of Someone Somewhere deciding for the greater good of the rest of us what is or should be Horror.

It’s already affecting our already-previously strained relationship with the Literary Critical community. They are asking for our genre definitions and criteria. And if we continue to ignore the questions being posed, it proves not only are we not interested in READING Criticism on our genre, but that we don’t respect either the academic process of Criticism, OR the blood-letting that happened to our writers in arguments on the way to this point. If we REALLY meant we want to be taken as a serious and Literary genre, then we need to start communicating with the Critics who ASK. And we need to be reading their Criticisms to agree or debate their findings. We need to show we care. DO IT FOR POE. DO IT FOR LOVECRAFT… both of whom fought valiantly for Literary recognition of our genre.

But it also affects the writer of Horror. There is already the challenge of self-education of Craft, of the study and interpretation of Literature, and genre history. But when one is ready to sit down and compose a story –  not-knowing if one is omitting or over-including some rumor of a convention, not-knowing what subgenre you are writing in or where you can market it – the distraction is absolutely story-stalling. This is my theory of why there is so little adventurous writing in the genre – everyone is afraid of crossing some invisible boundary and being made genre-less. Worse, everyone is afraid of admitting that none of us knows those alluded to conventions.

Yet apparently, neither do our genre “experts.”

Look, we really need to sit down and converse about this – admit where there are holes in our qualitative analysis, admit where we are just speculating on what we propose should be in the genre.

There should absolutely be no shame in not-knowing what no one is taught. So we should feel free to discuss our collective ignorance. And then fix the problem.

Yet there is a persistent and annoyingly loud loop repeating out there that no one is writing legitimate genre Horror or understands what proper Horror is and should be. This message is amplified by the Literary Critic, who is the only one who has the right to say so because it is NOT the job of the Literary Critic to define what is and is NOT Horror.

We are fortunate that this “expert” person (or persons) has no real concentrated power in reality, even if he or she thinks they do and even if they are in any way part of the HWA or traditional publishing and casts a long shadow. The ultimate power in any genre lies in the hands of those who are fans and potential fans of the genre – those who hold the very real purse strings. And since the necessary and Literary Critic-REQUESTED conversation is not being aired by our alleged leadership, then let US the writers and fans of Horror cast the first stone…

Let’s start with the basics. Let’s identify our inconsistencies and our faults. Let’s talk definitions.

Every Organization Needs Rules and Guidelines: Claiming & Naming Genre and Subgenre

If you have ever tried to submit a work for publication, you know the hypocrisy that riddles our genre.

“We want new authors….original work…only the best….must be previously published… like [insert author here]”

Most of us shrug, and press the SUBMIT button. And we typically get the standard Not-For-Us rejection, leaving the process none the wiser as to what was wanted or if we even came close.

The WHOLE GENRE is like this. There is no clear idea of what is wanted in the genre, of what IS genre, or SUBgenre, or “original” or “best”… Just like there is no real Horror canon.

That’s right.

There is NO HORROR CANON. 

(Canons are established by Literary Critics. Horror is just beginning the journey of being recognized by the field of Literary Criticism as a Literary Genre (i.e., a subgenre of Literature) and as a result, all we really have is a tiny handful of Critics just beginning to organize and define our genre for the field of Literary Criticism and the purpose of establishing our official canon of authors and works…So…no canon.)

And therefore our first problem is that our genre is constantly referring us to a canon that is not there and does not exist.

But we also find ourselves often being told how inadequate our work in the genre IS. Many of our editors have “bought into” the old and outdated Literary argument that the only thing Literary about our genre is Poe and Lovecraft, or writers like Jackson and Oates. Everyone and everything else is pushed away, even as it is asked for and demanded under threat of failing to remain “in-genre”…

We are constantly criticized for straying out of genre, of being more Fantasy or Science Fiction or Thriller or General Fiction, of writing like we think we are in the 1800’s or flat-out told we clearly violate conventions or need to reinterpret those conventions in order to be “original” (but not TOO original because it still needs to sell).

If you are a writer in the Horror genre, you know exactly what I am talking about; you have probably beat your own head against a wall trying to decipher and decode what the heck everyone wants from you. You may have signed up for classes, workshops, or (God forbid) an expensive MFA degree trying to break down that impenetrable fortress door. And yet you still are not Stephen King.  You still work two or three jobs just to keep the roof over your head and your computer updated.

And if you are a reader and a fan, you are probably wondering what the heck happened to our mojo in the genre that ONLY Stephen King seems able to strike our fancy…and keep the genre afloat…

So why is this all such a mystery?

Because we don’t TALK anymore. Because no one “in authority” is willing to assume some responsibility and venture out on a necessary limb to DEFINE the genre – to establish a position that can be refined and corrected and streamlined and debated and refined again until we get it right.

And neither do we make it clear that we need to HAVE A DISCUSSION – to find common ground and agree about the ground rules that the genre needs to abide by.

ALL of these things need to happen and need to happen right now.

After all, literal centuries of our authors (many of them who WILL BE Horror canon authors) who argued the merits of the Horror genre to Literary Critics, demanding the genre be accepted as a Literary genre, did not do all of the heavy lifting for us to stare at our feet and play pocket-pool when the New Literary Critics look at us and ask SIMPLE QUESTIONS that should have been answered a heckuva long time ago.

Where is the organization? The authoritative voice of our “Establishment” proposing their theories about everything the Critics want to (or will want to) know?

The mistake we are making is to fiddle while Rome burns. Critics may darned well shake their heads in amazement and walk away from us…because if WE don’t care, why the heck should THEY? Analysis and Criticism is a detailed, labor-heavy, time-consuming process: whole lives and careers will be given over to reading a LOT of Horror, good and bad. Who wants to bother if we can’t even provide the most basic answers to the questions:

What IS Horror by definition, and is Horror the proper name for the genre?

What are the criteria?

What are the recognized subgenres?

What are the established conventions and examples of works that exhibit those exact conventions?

When and to what extent should conventions be broken and still remain in-genre?

For all of our “experts” in the genre and the HWA, we have NO WRITTEN GUIDELINES OR DEFINITIONS.

None.

Think I’m kidding? Google “Horror conventions”… then find a wall.

It turns out there is no comprehensive list of conventions for Horror fiction. NONE.  You can find a sprinkling with relation to the Ghost Story, and with the traditional monsters…But there is no authoritative place to go with an actual list. Only musings. Preferences. Observations. The most you will find is in Film Theory…

So what does this mean? It means no one has a right to toss you, your writing, or others out of the genre. When someone deigns to commit some rules to paper in a place we can all find them, debate them and finalize them…then and only then should anyone vacate the genre.

We are risking everything right now by not allowing and encouraging discussion about where we should be going with this.

This is not to say that there are not scattered, informal discussions out there. There are several Horror podcasts, newsletters, and blogs about. But no one is collecting them, coordinating between them, inviting discussions between groups or participants. Just as no one saw fit to collect all of that valuable front matter of editorials, reviews, and criticisms and theory from past traditionally published collections and anthologies to save for posterity. THIS is our genre history. And it seems to be being relegated to a kind of rite-of-passage-if-you-didn’t-find-it-to-learn-about-it-you-aren’t-a-real-Horror-fan thing.

Besides being a sick, egotistical game, I repeat: this is our history.

And between Technology’s Big Thrill of killing publishing and all of the hard copies that define a history, and an Establishment that clearly thinks it has the sole intelligence and authority to remake Horror in its own image… We stand to lose everything our predecessors have worked so hard for – respectability and recognition.

How do I know this is a real problem?

Almost no one has ever disagreed with me on this blog.

WHY NOT?

This does NOT mean I am always right. It DOES mean we are not engaging with our “base”… we are not connecting… we are not discussing… Because SOMEONE should be saying, “I disagree…” Those of us who have formed opinions and done “a little research” should expect conversation. Yet we find only crickets.

Here are the most urgent of the questions Literary Critics have already ASKED US, and since no one seems to want to say, here are MY answers as a writer, fan, and researcher:

  • What IS Horror by definition, and is Horror the proper name for the genre? In my opinion, Horror is the proper name of the genre: the word encompasses everything from that which inspires fear, disgust, revulsion, terror, the supernatural, the paranormal, and the strange or weird. The Weird is only The Weird.
  • What are the criteria? I believe either the presence of actual monsters OR the supernatural  that are inseparable from the plot is THE criteria.
  • What are the recognized subgenres? Well let us explore that question further; allow me to get you started thinking about it…. Because I have been thinking. For years.

I consider there to be eighteen SUBGENRES, and even though there are definite overlaps, I believe there should be just as there are overlaps between genres.

For one thing, writers are not machines; there is a part of writing that remains organic no matter how often we may try to adhere to outlines, and we are wont to weave into our stories many different threads as we construct character and story just as an artist might use all of the colors on his or her palette. Cross-pollination is a natural result. And I don’t see this as a “cataloging” problem; just as we did in library cataloging, what dominates should dictate. Sorting should be an easy matter of deducing emphasis.

For another thing, we need to develop and define subgenre conventions to help stabilize and identify subgenres, and they don’t and should not have to be originality-killing tools of formula, but seedlings of formula.  When and to what extent should conventions be allowed to be bent or broken and a work still remain in-subgenre may help clarify the differences between subgenres, and cease to be a tool of overall genre-elimination – something that happened (I believe) because we allowed someone at the top to decide that Horror is one giant genre with one set of conventions. It is not. We are currently torn asunder with subgenres lacking names and definition.

And until we decide on subgenres, we have little use for free-floating conventions, don’t you think?

Here is my list and examples of some of the works and authors I would include in my version of the most prominently noticed subgenres:

The Gothic Subgenre (includes the original Gothic and the Gothic Romance) is traditional and Literary, built on genre precedent. Has formula and strict, already-established conventions clearly applied (such as the isolated manse, the targeted protagonist usually female, dark and gloomy atmosphere, dark family secret); the Horror should be impactful BUT subtle. Examples: Wuthering Heights (Jane Austen), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirly Jackson), Bellefleur (Joyce Carol Oates) The Fall of the House of Usher (Poe) The Old Nurse’s Story (Elizabeth Gaskell)

The Southern Gothic Subgenre (a strictly American regional offering) this is a clear and distinct form of The Gothic that is not fashioned in the strict mode of the European model of The Gothic, but that like The Gothic trends Literary. And while it is also dark, often includes a large “manse” and has a plotline rife with family or town secrets, it also tends to include an undercurrent of dark humor while being set exclusively in the American South, often serving as a coming-of-age story, characteristically drawing on the tragedy of slavery and loss, monsters and voodoo; although according to The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, this subgenre is already beginning to expand into other rich areas of the American Southern story with long-overdue love and attention – such as Native American presence in the South, socioeconomic class, and norms of gendered behavior and what has come to be called “the Southern Grotesque”… Feast of All Saints (Anne Rice), A Rose for Emily (William Faulkner), The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Grandy Hendrix), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)

The New Gothic Subgenre is a mirror of the Old Gothic, but is set historically in more “modern” times – currently this subgenre is starting with World Wars I and II, using much the same formula as Old Gothic and Gothic Romance – same isolated, supernatural-laced settings, the isolated protagonist, The Family Secret, and the ghost. Unlike Southern Gothic, the New Gothic has more in common with Gothic Romance and our English roots than with our cultural failings. However, perhaps it is because the subgenre is just getting started…Things could indeed become much more Literary and interesting; sub subgenre emerging now? Urban Gothic. The Haunting of Maddy Clare (Simone St. James), The Haunting of Cabin Green (April A. Taylor),  The House Next Door (Darcy Coates)

The Ghost Story Subgenre is also traditional and typically Literary but includes modern interpretations and pulpy versions of the campfire tale. There are and have been sketchily “discussed” loose conventions, but their remaining in place should not be for the purpose of restricting the story, merely for identifying it as Horror where the ghost CANNOT be eliminated from the plot and where they are a platform to build upon like rhyme scheme in poetry. The Woman in Black (Hill), The Turn of the Screw (Henry James), Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (M.R. James), Green Tea (Sheridan LeFanu), The Ghost in the Rose Bush (Mary Wilkins Freeman), Night Terrors: the Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson (E.F. Benson)

The Weird Subgenre is largely Literary and mostly Lovecraft and Blackwood providing convention blueprints. Because of the higher interest from Literary Critics, it currently already includes a set of presumed “canon-elect”authors (with those who follow in contemporary times being labelled as imitators). It is, essentially, stories that “cannot possibly happen” because they rely on the knowledge of “science of the future” to be understood and “whose terror cannot be ontological in origin” according to S.T. Joshi in his book The Weird Tale.  Without new innovation, this subgenre is sometimes thought to be closing or closed, and only the publishing future and Literary Critics can tell. Currently recognized Weird authors are: H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Robert Aickman, Henry Ferris, Clark Ashton Smith, Thomas Ligotti, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell.

The Traditional Subgenre is all “traditional” monsters (even future new monsters are added even though what we consider traditional is still rather new as they derive from the first Golden Age of Horror 1930-1950 as led by Hollywood ) – the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the witch, the mummy, and Frankenstein variants. Intermittent conventions can be found, and clearly were being discussed at one point within the genre, but there is still no definitive list. (Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice), Dracula (Bram Stoker), I Am Legend (Matheson), Ghost Story (Peter Straub), The Mummy: a Tale of the Twenty-second Century (Jane Webb Loudon)

Dark Fantasy/Folkloric Subgenre is all based on actual folklore traditions, urban folklore, and fantasy worlds or realities. Regardless of how fantastical or even literal it gets,we should see the folklore roots from here. Urban Fairy Tales are a sub subgenre.  Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Faerie Tale (Raymond Feist), Rusalka (C.J. Cherryh), Weaveworld (Clive Barker), The Child Thief (Brom) The Changeling (Victor LaValle), The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood), Memory and Dream (Charles DeLint),  Book of the Damned (Secret Books of Paradys Book 1) (Tanith Lee)

Dark Science Fiction Subgenre is a blur of science fiction concepts overtaken by dark elements that pose (sometimes by the totality of the story) prominent supernatural or paranormal questions such as the meaning of life, religion, the soul. The Thing (John Campbell)  Event Horizon (Steven McDonald), Sphere (Crichton), Bird Box (Josh Malerman), Coma (Robin Cook) Blind Sight (Peter Watts), The Luminous Dead (Caitlin Starling) Nightflyers and Other Stories (George R.R. Martin)

Apocalyptic Horror Subgenre is exactly what it says it is –either about the ending of the world, the surviving of the end of the world, and the loss of world.  It does NOT have to be set far in the future, about zombies, vampires or pandemics, but may be about the mystery of how it happens (including right now) or the supernatural instigation or ramifications of such. This would include dead guys discovering they are dead, and trips through purgatory or hell, monsters like Cthulhu coming from outer space, monsters we make through our own incompetent actions and arrogances – but there must be the supernatural and/or monsters embedded in the plot.  The Book of Paradox (Louise Cooper), The Devine Comedy (Dante), The Stand (Stephen King)

The Literary Subgenre is void of pulp and commercialism, the polar opposite of the Pulp Subgenre and the endgame of more ambitious Popular Subgenre works; the Horror should be subtle but impactful and can include human Horrors like war, poverty, illness, death, sexual and physical abuse, murder and psychosis, BUT there must be a significant supernatural element. The Birds (and Other Stories) (Daphne DuMaurier), The Winter People (Jennifer McMahon), Mind of Winter (Laura Kasischeke), The Dollmaker (Joyce Carol Oates), Sacrament (Clive Barker), Delores Claiborne (Stephen King), Perfume (Patrick Suskind)

The Pulp Subgenre is nonLiterary, a fictional romp through genre tropes with no explored subtext and light character development, and is prominently featured as comics, graphic novels, and online forums like CreepyPasta (which at novel-length can become Popular). The Sandman (Book of Dreams) Gaiman, Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), Locke & Key (Hill), The Mammoth Book of Kaiju (Sean Wallace)

The Crossover Subgenre is a dump subgenre for writers who write perhaps only ONE piece of Horror or in a style that pushes them to the edge of their HOME Genre, leaving that work literarily homeless but laden with Horror elements that may force also sharing of one or more of our own subgenres. It is also for that block of writing that is simultaneously YA and not quite, Children’s and not quite. We need a place to welcome these orphaned authors and/or works. Piercing Ryu Murakami, I Remember You (Yrsa Sigurdardottir), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), Blood Crime (Sebastia Alzamora), Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl), Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (J.K. Rowling) , Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Alvin Schwarz), The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

The Military Horror Subgenre (Just as in the Science Fiction subgenre), this is a place for the wartime survivors, war refugees, military historians, the battle-buff, and the supernatural-infiltrated PTSD writer of battlefield Horror and their jargon-laden stories. It is necessary, and it is a severely underrepresented part of our genre with a huge potential audience and potential field of writers whose stories would not only be therapeutic for their countries of origin, war-torn communities, and survivors, but also an education for those of us so graciously spared the experience of war. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Ambrose Bierce), Black Fire (Hernan Rodriguez), Existential (Ryan W. Aslesen), Koko (Peter Straub)

The Period/Historical Horror Subgenre (Just as it is in the Romance Genre) this would be a supernatural romp through a detailed, well-researched historical period. This opens the door to Horror needed by many minorities wanting to explore historical periods, as well as those who want to write the “weird” or haunted western, or who want to write “in the vein of/in the style of older, classic writers” to create a vintage mood. Cry to Heaven (Anne Rice), Phantom (Susan Kay), The Terror (Dan Simmons), The Hunger (Alma Katsu), and all of those Legacy Author anthologies.

The Hauntological Horror Subgenre (which should not be confused with Period/Historical Horror set in a specific historical time, but) is set in “modern day/after the focal event” with the Horror coming from the past OR a future misplaced. This would be the Racial or Species Guilt subgenre where the loss of class, security, environment or self-image is directly related to past events and/or the proximity of the sensed presence of the past.  A Stir of Echoes (Richard Matheson)  The Wendigo (Algernon Blackwood), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Coyote Songs (Gabino Iglesias), The Tree People (Naomi Stokes), The Only Good Indians (Stephen Graham Jones).

The Holiday Horror Subgenre would be Horror written specifically for and set within a specific Holiday – including Christmas, Halloween and even Valentine’s Day. This would typically be short fiction targeted for holiday contests, holiday anthologies, and holiday periodical features. A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens, Krampus: the Yule Lord (Brom), Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Pumpkinhead (Cullen Bunn)

The Humorous/Satirical/Parody Horror Subgenre is horror attempting to bring wicked fun or a satirical twist or parody to the genre.  This style needs to be clearly distinct from standard subgenres as Horror fans wanting actual scary Horror do not want silly surprises, and those who want a giggle do not want scary stuff. Legend of Kelly Featherstone (Washington Irving) A Ghost Story (Mark Twain), The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde), Herbert West-Reanimator (H.P. Lovecraft), The Open Window (H.H. Munro/Saki)

The Popular Horror Subgenre is mainstream, fiction-mill Horror, generically produced with actual formula restrictions – including acceptable length and formulaic setting and characters with limited development. This would be the fictional bridge between pulp and Literature commonly known as The Bestseller. Popular can be Literary, but its intention is specifically to sell and perhaps diversify into film. Its aims are all commercial, and should have a formula of conventions that dictate that success (certain events happening by certain pages, faster pace, action verbs, all designed to engage the public on a tale-telling adventure.) Carrie (King), Watchers (Koontz), Rosemary’s Baby (Levin), Hellraiser (Barker), Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)

I am sure some of my classifications will raise a few hackles here or there, that some of my subgenres will seem to be sub sub-genres to some, that one could argue they seem too overlapping. They also could use more development and specific definition – but then I am just getting started. We have to get something up on the whiteboard, start brainstorming. I say we need to compile just such a list, debate it, vote on it, decide on it. Then we need to get busy establishing accepted conventions for each subgenre – and provide them to any writer or Literary Critic who asks for them.

So there you are: a starting point.

Do you agree? Where do you disagree?

What list would YOU make?

If we are going to grow this genre, mature it into a form worthy of Literary Critical attention, broaden our horizons, increase our creativity, inspire new writers, find new readers, seek out new twists on how we horrify each other, we are going to need appropriate and qualified leadership.

Is anybody out there?

That Woman In Black: Susan Hill — a Gothic Writer for the Canon


It’s time we got one thing straight: what all seminal writers of what should become our Horror canon have in common is this – whatever they write, from wherever they come, however long they are with us, their stories shape the genre in some important and unforgettable way.

Yet at this moment in our history, we have apparently “decided” that along with writers who also write in other genres, the ones we should ignore are the ones who “reject” our genre or who write limited works in our genre.

This is stupid and a horrible, intentional oversight.

We can excuse Literary Critics who embrace their favorites based on their academic interpretations and understanding of not only what makes Literary writing great, but what qualifying mechanics they also prefer to see in their own love of Horror. But in truth, for the rest of us what truly belongs in our canon are works that drive the evolution of our genre, stories that beget stories and ever newer interpretations of Horror, tales that reinvent established subgenres so that modern times can participate in the traditions of the genre.

Yet this is not what is happening. There are certain authors whose names seem “forcibly” and reluctantly mentioned when the Establishment is pressed to supply qualifying names for our as-yet-established canon…and Susan Hill is just such a writer.

H1

It’s All About the Writing, Right?

Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, England, February 5, 1942, educated at a convent school, a graduate of King’s College, London. Her first novel was published while in school in 1961, and she was a freelance journalist from 1963-1968, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972. She has been described as a “prolific writer of numerous novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction and children’s fiction as well as a respected reviewer, critic, broadcaster and editor.” (British). In 1975 she married Shakespearean actor Stanley Wells, leaving him in 2013 to move in with her current partner… “The unexpected happened to me: I fell in love with another woman who fell in love with me.” The woman is screenwriter and producer Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead, for whom Hill left her husband of almost 40 years, the respected Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells….” (Kean)

Why Hill appears to be so easily dismissed by the genre seems to have an unnecessarily complicated motivation – one that may have more to do with her rejection of us…because she has indeed repeatedly tried to distance herself and her works from the Horror genre.

The question I have, is did we at any time encourage her or writers like her to just go away?

Have we gotten so arrogant in our Establishment that we banish works from writers who want nothing to do with us and do we ever ask why? When a writer recoils when called a Horror writer, should we be offended or take a much harder look at the type of works we are allowing the genre to be represented by? Furthermore, shouldn’t our Establishment be taking that very opportunity to educate both writers and readers about the true nature of our genre’s historic meanderings through so many genres, its influence on and from so many genres – and its very impressive depth?

But we also have to ask if there is something even more insidious at work here. Is our Establishment choosing and excluding writers also based not only on written content, but perhaps their own personal lives? Are we miscommunicating and even limiting the genre by our inherent “favoritisms”? And are those favorites more likely to be at least white, preferably married men, preferably within a certain agnostic or atheistic circle? Are we playing conformity games with presumed moral authority?

Is it a coincidence that Susan Hill is yet another writer in our genre who is living a nontraditional lifestyle? Whose private life is public knowledge? Who might be lesbian or bisexual or any other label so easily affixed?

We need to be asking and answering these questions. And this is not the job of the Literary Critic, but the job of those of us who collectively make up the genre. This may mean it is time for editors to explain their selections, for governing bodies to explain their rejections, and for fans to demand access to the best writers in our genre regardless of sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, or even “home” genres…

Without pressure from the Horror base, we are going to see increasingly institutionalized discrimination against new and old writers in the genre. We are going to see publication choices made that will have a chilling effect on the future trajectory and evolution of the genre. We need variety of story and voice, not censorship. And Susan Hill’s modern journey in the genre is a perfect example of what happens to writers who fall “outside” the lines… Because those other questions remain: do you know who Susan Hill is? Do you know her work? If not, why not?

Is our collective silence in the face of Susan Hill’s subsequent rejection of the genre the only reason we tend to reluctantly “mention” Susan Hill when we are talking about modern canon-elect authors? Did her rejection of us happen because she dislikes what Horror the genre is being interpreted to represent, or because she in her personal life didn’t fit the desired stereotype? And has anyone at all got a really legitimate reason why Susan Hill is never really mentioned as a foundational author in our genre?

We as a genre have begun to put out certain “vibes” that only passionate followers willing to conform to historic whim and dedicated acolytes willing reinforce emotionally-driven criteria need apply, and that everyone else who might reject or refuse to “toe the party line” will be summarily excluded. We have given the Cold Shoulder to quite a few writers and their works in our rush to enshrine Lovecraft and Poe… writers like Susan Hill, author of many well-known, well-respected ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror…Does this bother anyone else out there? Does it bother anyone else that “certain” writers are given honorable mention in the most reluctant of ways – even when the general public can see a relevant contribution when it is made?

We have spent so much time in the genre clamoring for Literary writers… and Susan Hill is exactly that. Yet once again, despite the raw obviousness of her ghost stories being Horror stories, we have shrugged her off. We have come to pretend that works labelled “Gothic” aren’t really Horror because they aren’t “hard core” enough. But…the Gothic, people…. this is our foundational HISTORY.

Susan Hill walked away and we just let her go…

And yet, instead of holding the Establishment accountable, we default to blaming Hollywood, using the success or box office failure of the film to justify rejection of the work. Such is the unfortunate case with The Woman in Black (where the book is in fact, better)… Hollywood managed to botch the film – an otherwise capable tale told with substantial actors – with what looked horribly like poorly rendered, drawn-in, cartoon Dementor-like ghosts and whereupon reviewers spent most of their critical currency discussing Daniel Radcliffe and comparisons to Harry Potter films. But sadly, the presence of the film has overshadowed the wonder of the work.

Indeed, it seems that most people don’t realize that there even was a book that preceded the movie – let alone that it was fantastic in its own right. We are unfortunately today more likely to assume a work began on film instead of looking for the book that the film was created from. And perhaps – just perhaps that is a little of why we don’t really know the name of Susan Hill, but honestly the more I dug into her biography, the more I suspect something more sinister has happened to erase Hill from our present catalog of works.

Susan Hill, you see, is another author whose sexual identity is at crosshairs with the old way of seeing things, and whose works have been summarily exiled to “Literary Fiction.”

Are you seeing the same pattern I am seeing? It looks like once again exile has nothing to do with Horror. And I am embarrassed for our genre.

Furthermore, I really don’t know when we are going to get our noses out of everyone else’s personal business. But this type of “problem” we have in our genre is yet another reason I support the Literary Critical position that the author does not matter in the analysis of their work…

How can we read The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, Dolly, or The Small Hand and ignore the legacy of Susan Hill in our genre? She has a place with us… She fills a spot emptied by the passing of the great Ghost Story Gothicists… She is a British Joyce Carol Oates, a more modern heir to the tradition of Daphne DuMaurier, her work so molecularly related to the important strands of Horror DNA that her exclusion from reading lists and recommendations is flat-out glaring.

Yet she is not touted by the genre as one of our own. Our Establishment barely acknowledges her.

Could it be because Hill rejected us first? Or because she did so very publicly?

Are we three years old and playing in sandboxes?

H2

Fixing Our Image Problem Is Not Done With Censorship

Susan Hill, you see, seems to shrink from any association with our genre – and while I would like to think that this is because of her age, that it has more to do with her own memories and rejection of the 1980’s shift to the sloppy work that spewed from the exhausted Boom or the emergence of the slasher subgenre – I suspect it might be the ghost of Clive Barker rising again… that once more our Establishment decided to play both moral and creative judge.

We are, I believe, losing authors due to two things in the Horror genre – arrogance in the Establishment that is both unfounded and totally undefined by established criteria, and a lack of official history in the genre that tells everyone interested in Horror exactly what genres and subgenres Horror encompasses.

The Horror genre is dominated by a collective ignorance – not because people are stupid, but because none of us are being educated about the genre today and because the Tech Boom’s obliteration of traditional publishing models is pushing our more modern “classics” from print and/or availability. Readers in the genre today are having a much harder time finding historically rendered Horror written by established or accepted top tier writers (like Poe, Lovecraft, King, Campbell, Barker, Rice)…let alone newer (and what would have been) mid-list authors or Literary cross-pollinators like Hill.

Worse, we have NO requirements. No matter what the Establishment says or implies, no one has drawn up any definitive and historically derived guidelines… they cannot even agree on tropes and conventions. They cannot even assemble those in one place with easily interpreted, applicable definitions. Instead any student of Horror will find not only variable lists of “accepted” authors and works, but additionally a wide interpretation and usage of terms whose definitions and usage vary according to the “authority’s” needs. No one EVER explains anything thoroughly in the genre…because clearly THEY don’t know either…and pretending it is a secret or that only Real Writers Know is just plain conceit.

This has resulted in a total identity crisis… And all the time we keep saying it is all about the writing.

Horror is what anyone says it is. And that has led to the exposure of yet another truth: our history (with the exception of recent efforts by Critics like S.T. Joshi and a few dedicated fans) remains predominantly and officially undocumented…

In other words, when a writer (let alone a reader) sees the “Horror” label, even today most do not see Classic Literature, Science Fiction, Detective/Mystery Fiction, Fantasy/Dark Fantasy Fiction, the Gothic, New Gothic, Southern Gothic, Gothic Romance, the Ghost Story as tributaries of a huge, historic Horror river. Instead they see Halloween, Chuckie, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the really kitschy summer blockbusters of yore…

Is this what happened to Susan Hill? Was it her interpretations of self and works — or ours?

Our editors tend to look upon writers whose works mimic in any way the styles of earlier Horror incarnations as “bad” writers…as “uninteresting”…”too slow-paced”… “not modern enough”… They want something equally as yet undefined but that will please Critics, reinvigorate the genre, and sell like Stephen King… But they can’t tell you what it is…only what they think it isn’t.

And if you don’t like them…it isn’t. And increasingly, it also looks like if you are a gay or transgender writer, you probably don’t belong to us either…

Perhaps it was her own opinion of her own work, then, that reinforced one part of our Establishment’s opinion of her. As stated in piece by The Guardian, she tries mightily to distance herself from the genre:

“It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing…” (Mullan)

In the article, Hill explains herself, stating:

“I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the “bible” – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

“The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to “ghost” was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of “true” ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying… There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader’s superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer’s only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.” (Mullan)

Did she give our Establishment a way out of recognizing her work?

Worse, is she a product of the times when Horror had a less-than-savory reputation for mass market writing that was seriously less than Literary? Is she missing the forest for the trees? Does she not see her own importance to our genre based on the resonant DNA? Don’t WE?

Or is this about her sexuality? I cannot help but wonder…Because the writers I have loved as a fan are almost unanimously turning out to be gay or transgendered or wrestling with sexual identity (as well as excluded from the genre)… a fact I neither knew nor cared about growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s…because for me it has always been about the writing….

H3 H4 H5

Reclaiming the Gothic

I think the technical problem we have in the genre is a misplaced sense of “purity”… of pedigree that has not yet been firmly established by Literary Critics. But that fact does not give our Establishment free rein to declare who is and is not in-genre – not when the same Establishment cannot or will not provide clear definitions and guidelines for what it argues IS the Horror genre. Neither does it excuse the eviction of authors who are not straight, white, Christian-or-rebel-atheist and male…

Ultimately it will be the Literary Critic who decides about technical definitions – something perhaps we all conveniently forgot when we threw ourselves at the Literary Critic and demanded a belly-rub. And now that we are firmly in the sights of Literary Criticism, having finally arrived at a point where Poe would be proud, we are trying to shove innumerable authors under the carpet. Why?

In a time when we are hearing a demand for better, more Literary fiction in the genre, why are we dismissing so many writers as “other-genre”? Why aren’t we fighting for them?

Despite Hill’s own assessment of her work, I argue she most certainly does write Horror. Literary Horror. The kind of Horror that blooms from very old roots. And her writing these ghost stories prompts some very important questions for our ghost story subgenre – especially in lieu of S.T. Joshi (our one dedicated Horror Literary Critic) to state his belief that the ghost story is “done” as a subgenre, and cannot be improved upon after M.R. James… While many there may be limits on how ghosts are pressed into service, why are they any different than Vampires? Why isn’t it about telling stories and original angles? About scaring anew?

This could not be more important or timely. Do we really believe the Ghost Story is dead? Can it be properly adapted in both short story and novel to sustain originality expectations? Believability?

And what does this say about the Gothic thereafter? Is this the reason we have seen both Gothic and Southern Gothic go “silent” in the genre?

How we got to a point in Horror where we disavow the Gothic for heaven’s sake, I don’t know. I cannot imagine. While Gothic Romance teeters on the fringe of Horror to the point it leans into another genre entirely, the straight Gothic and Southern Gothic are right here… in our subgenres…most often as Ghost Stories.

Yet no one speaks on their behalf. Not the genre, not the readers, not the publishers… and sometimes, not even the writers…

Perhaps Hill does not wish to be identified as a Horror writer, and I understand: the 1980’s left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many readers and Critics who wanted so much more from us. Maybe we need to acknowledge the price this decade has also had on what were then “future” writers; because even I have to admit, the 1980s is precisely when I began to drift away from Horror. Perhaps the slasher/trashier sloppiness of the published writings drove away a lot more people than has been explained as fans aging out. Hill is a perfect example; she was born in 1942, writing her first novel her first year at university (which was criticized as “unsuitable” for having been written by a schoolgirl), and writing eight novels between 1968 and 1974. She wrote The Woman in Black in 1983 – just as the publishing mills were spinning gold, but not much in the way of Literature – especially in Horror.

Yet one can only split hairs so much. The Woman In Black may be Literary, may be Gothic… but it is indisputably also a Ghost Story. We can empathize with her ambitions to write “better” than what was exemplified by Horror at the time. However Hill is definitively Gothic… even somewhat in her more recent move to Crime Fiction. Since its inception, Horror has been irretrievably linked to both Science Fiction by way of Lovecraft and Detective Fiction by way of Wilkie Collins. In leaving the genre Hill (on her own or otherwise) has not really, fully left the genre…

I argue this is not a bad thing. And I hope Hill herself will come to see it.

I would say that Horror needs writers like her in it, needs her works filling out the spice rack. Writers in the Horror genre today are writing in the dark. We have no real, definitive guidance as to who among modern writers have or are shaping the genre today… we barely have acknowledgement of which writers have partially solidified the still-fuzzy boundaries of the genre. All we have to tell us are the plethora of theme-based anthologies, tribute anthologies, editorial stylings, and Hollywood.

It’s time this changed. We are just now beginning to have Literary Criticism look at the genre. We need to help Critics plow through the massive dump of writings out there… to make suggestions as a genre as to who we find to be significant influences on modern works so that future Literary Critics can take a hard look at the nominees and see if they have the merit we sense they do.

Clearly, we cannot rely on our Establishment to do this, at least right now. For whatever reason, heads are firmly planted in the sand. And with the internet severely cutting into the way Classic Horror is published (so many falling out of copyright protections so that “anyone” seems to be publishing them, leaving their rightful legacy unacknowledged by the authorities of the genre) that some very important names are not being given their due respect. New readers in the genre do not know who they are. And all too often, many are falling out of publication (where in the past history of publishing houses these authors might have been backlisted but they were still proudly available).

Meanwhile in our own genre, we are seeing a tendency toward separating the Literary from Horror, and wielding what looks like moral judgment.

In fact, the presence of so many Literary talents who also write occasionally in our genre should be a welcome thing. Naming them as part of the genre could be an educational thing — an elevating-our-game thing.

H6

When Gothic Is Horror: Is Horror Literary or Not?

After everything Poe and Lovecraft went through, and all of those marvelous essays by our genre’s writers and editors… What the hell is going on?

All of a sudden a Literary writer is not a Horror writer.

Funny. I don’t see the Establishment banning Poe or Lovecraft, two of our most Literary writers. And this means we all have a burning question for the Establishment as readers AND writers:

What do you want?

And don’t think Literary Critics won’t notice the choices being made and who is making them: Literary Critics thrive on pattern recognition…

To deny a writer because they either consistently write as Literary writers, in other genres, or even if they totally disdain our genre is totally irresponsible. By their works ye shall know them… And if that denial has anything at all to do with sexual orientation, we have and even bigger problem…

Susan Hill wrote Horror. (Sorry, Ms. Hill, but this is true. And it is awesome.)

But is this also a case of moral exclusion?

Are we again seeing a case where a writer’s personal life has colored the perceptions of our Establishment?

Especially with today’s proliferation of the internet and social media – with the amount of pure, adulterated, unfounded gossip… The very idea that Literary Criticism might be conducted with a writer’s reputation and scandal-meter in mind is absolutely horrifying. If we are, for example, excluding a writer like Hill based on the “limited” scandal of her sexuality in her time, what damage could be done to the whole of Literature if we do not firmly and immediately embrace Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”?

If we are excluding her because she doesn’t like us, maybe we should be asking if we are like-able…Or if we are all doing our jobs properly.

It is time to put a stop to this, no matter where it is coming from. Writing, like music and any of the Arts, should stand alone, to be let to speak its truth. Knowing about the biography of the writer, musician or artist should enhance the work… not define it. A writer’s sexuality, except perhaps in its Literary influence in his or her work has nothing to do with the work.

Susan Hill belongs in our canon.

I am not a Literary Critic, so I am not sure where in it she belongs. But I DO know her writing helped bring our attention back to the ghost story. She is part of the new movement of gothic ghost story currently gaining a bit of leverage, but left to languish in the orphaned “Gothic” (which is ours and us, by the way)… writers like Canadian author Simone St. James, Australians Darcy Coates and John Harwood, and English author Judy Finnegan, and American Jennifer McMahon…

Have you heard of THOSE writers? If not, why not? We need to be asking – no – DEMANDING answers from our establishment…and we can begin by demanding recognition of Susan Hill.

To say that they are mainstream, or too other-genre, or not interesting enough is flat-out insulting. This is Horror now: we are not Poe or Lovecraft… and many of us are WOMEN… but all of us love the stories that make Horror Horror…

And that is how “trends” start… One writer at a time… with a writer who remembers the way another writer once made him or her feel…

 

Bibliography

2014 The Soul of Discretion

2013 Black Sheep

2012 Dolly

2012 A Question of Identity

2011 The Betrayal of Trust

2011 A Kind Man

2010 The Small Hand

2010 The Shadows in the Street

2009 Howards End is on the Landing

2008 The Battle for Gullywith

2008 The Vows of Silence

2008 The Beacon

2007 The Man in the Picture

2006 Farthing House: And Other Stories

2006 The Risk of Darkness

2005 The Pure in Heart

2004 The Various Haunts of Men

2003 The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read

1998 The Service of Clouds

1997 Listening to the Orchestra

1997 The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1995 Contemporary Women’s Short Stories

1995 Reflections from a Garden

1994 The Christmas Collection

1994 Pirate Poll

1993 Mrs de Winter

1993 King of Kings

1993 Beware, Beware

1992 The Mist in the Mirror: A Ghost Story

1992 A Very Special Birthday

1991 The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1991 The Glass Angels

1991 Air and Angels

1990 Ghost Stories

1990 The Parchment Man: An Anthology of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1990 Stories from Codling Village

1990 I Won’t Go There Again

1990 Septimus Honeydew

1990 The Walker Book of Ghost Stories

1989 Family

1989 Suzy’s Shoes

1988 Can It Be True?: A Christmas Story

1988 The Spirit of the Cotswolds

1987 Lanterns Across the Snow

1987 Shakespeare Country

1986 The Lighting of the Lamps

1986 Mother’s Magic

1985 The Ramshackle Company

1984 One Night at a Time

1983 People: Essays and Poems

1983 The Woman in Black

1983 Ghost Stories

1982 The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year

1980 New Stories

1979 The Distracted Preacher and Other Stories by Thomas Hardy

 Awards

2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year

1988 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize (Gold Award)

1972 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

1972 Whitbread Novel Award

1971 Somerset Maugham Award

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Retrieved 7/16/2019 from https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

British Council of Literature. Retrieved 7/25/2019 from https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/susan-hill

Kean, Danuta. Interview. “Susan Hill: I am Not Pro-Trump! Really? Do People Think That of Me?” The Guardian. March 4, 2017. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/susan-hill-i-am-not-pro-trump-really-do-people-think-that-of-me

Mullan, John. Book Club Books. “The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.” The Guardian. Feb 17, 2012. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/17/woman-in-black-book-club-susan-hill