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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is satire?

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

What is irony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A leg of lamb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

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

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

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

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

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

Continues Ulin:

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

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

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

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Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

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

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

W2

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?)

W3

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.

 

P1

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…

P2

 

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…)

 

P3

 

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.

P4

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!!!!!

G1

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.

G3

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?

G2

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/

 

 

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


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

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

I am bummed.

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

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

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

How does a Horror writer work with that?

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

Cre1

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

 

It’s Under the Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cre2

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

Guilt: the Equal Opportunity Shadow Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsters can see in the dark.

 

Cre3

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

Saving Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cre4

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

Dissembling, Disassembling & Dissociating

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror is elusive with too many people in your head…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many times have you heard that?

How many times was it wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cre5

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

Scaring the Lit Out of Yourself: Making Good Horror From Bad Memories (World View Part 2)


When Horror writers think of Horror as Literature, we think foremost of Lovecraft; Lovecraft is so intimately and unequivocally ours…Unlike Poe, who having been repeatedly devoured by Critics of Olde (who in turn we resolutely believe did not “get” us), seems hopelessly ensnared in academic debate even as he rises as proof that Horror is indeed Literary. Lovecraft is accessible to our imaginations.

Lovecraft is indeed different. Lovecraft is us.

He is the traditionally rejected writer dedicated to his own vision of monsters. He is the rebellious outsider, the flawed character in his own story, a rich man made poor, a lonely man made so by his own inability to navigate society. He is the one who said, “I told you so,” the one who showed up his critics and enemies by outlasting them all, and becoming one of the foremost and most immortal of Horror writers. Lovecraft is our revenge upon all naysayers made real. He is our idol.. because he transcended all predictions and Criticisms of his time. For that, we love and adore him.

But what we tend to forget is how isolated, terror-filled, and haunted his life really was.

We forget he was extolled and emulated only after his death; instead we picture him happy and wealthy, when Lovecraft lived an opposite life of constant poverty and was tormented by his own tailored variety of demons. And those monstrosities were so real he not only wrote about them – he named them and gave them their own worlds as they relentlessly chased him through his. That he might well have been mentally ill is (for most of us) beside the point. Lovecraft represents the struggle of an exceptional writer to get his work perfected and published.

Lovecraft is a community triumph.

And while what Lovecraft wrote is now being identified as the highest form of Literary – replete with a Critic-adored World View, he once was indeed…us.  That this may provide a useful hint as to the technique we need to find and put to use is — for many of us — beside the point:  it irks us to be reminded of the truth, knowing how passionately we identify with pieces of his life as imagined by ourselves.

And so we do not understand how he performed the trick. Like any good bit of magic, we have missed the essence of the illusion by being distracted by that very illusion.

That Lovecraft might well have performed it by accident disturbs us. We are formula hunters…Pattern seekers. And we want a sure-fire, step-by-step instruction manual.

To get there, we have to recognize the secret of the Secret Sauce; World View is a consequence of personal experience.

And how you mine personal experience is encapsulated in two sentences of advice we have had drilled into our brains with absolutely no understanding of what was meant:

  • Find what scares you.
  • Write what you know.

It turns out that writing good Horror depends heavily upon your ability to turn bad memories into good story. It means –even if you are convinced you have neither baggage nor enough life experience – learning to scare the Literature out of yourself… Because if you are going to expose your World View, personal experience is your vocabulary.

 

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Finding What Scares You

In the search for World View, we must look for metaphors. What incidents in your life provide the necessary cover for Life’s Bigger Issues? Chances are, they are the smaller ones…

Yet we are easily overwhelmed by thinking in Literary terms. So it is often better to think in personal ones, and then stitch in the Literary reinforcements at some later point of revision. To do that, we can safely start by using the advice of common How-to tomes…

However, over-used phrases like “write about what scares you” and its near and necessary relative “write what you know” are too nonspecific. They leave a lot open to misinterpretation and we can spend long, lonely years toiling down primrose paths of flat, boring Horror.

But if you are going to write good Horror, you need to understand exactly what is meant by both phrases. There are inextricably linked. And they don’t mean what they sound like they mean: they mean precisely what they mean.

Sound confusing?

Good. That means you are already thinking about it.

When we are told to “find what scares us” in particular, we suddenly become surface dwellers. In essence, we fail to go deep enough into the ugly, emotionally scarred territory of our own subconscious because we spend our lives trying to minimize the damage other people keep trying to do to us and our fragile egos. It is not so easy to reverse course, to dig deep and poke our private humiliations and fears. In fact, it often takes multiple attempts, multiple drafts, and some incredible, hair-tearing moments to pull it off.

According to Charles Baxter in his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, subtext, or “the unspoken soul matter… that critical twilight zone… that landscape haunted by the unseen” (4) is the provenance of characters. And it is through the artful manipulation of “dramatic placement” that the hidden is revealed – but not just shown. Subtext is a potent revelation that must be deduced, felt, and infallibly honest… wherewhat is displayed evokes what is not displayed.” (3)

Sounds simple. But this is astoundingly complicated, especially for new writers who tend to grab onto Horror with both hands while minimizing their own world experience. Worse, we are often in love with the creative process. We wallow in the magic like cats in catnip.

For many of us, writing is an escape. It’s like going to the movies and sitting in a dark theater watching a personal showing of an unknown story unfold – this is true in particular if you are an organic writer. To interrupt that process of drafting and probe about for unsettling memories or associations can (in your own mind)  wreck the whole thing.

This is largely because being human we choose to insulate our emotional selves from eviscerating wounds. To get it out, we have to trick ourselves. We may have plethora of great and ugly experiences we expect to tap for our writing. But thinking about it is depressing, defeating. It is natural to think of those very personal horrors only in the quiet of your room, when the world is shut out and you feel marginally safe to play with razor sharp images. So we write in circles… in denial.

We create a story with vivid characters and wonderful setting and a plot that seems to lie flat on the page and never quite scares anyone much. We fail to engage our own warp engines…

Yet we all already instinctively know that the best Horror is buried deep: that is where the elevation of the story hides. And our own self-defense mechanisms are constantly plotting against our conscious selves to keep it there.

So when we are asked in public what really scares us – as in a writing class (or when our minds are in public-mode) – we tend to choose and reveal innocuous things that mark us as “one of the group” but not the one who is the most vulnerable. This is not by mistake; not only do we have the savage lessons of predator and prey to remind us of the importance of the safety of numbers, but we have the collective peer pressure of Modern Times…

Continues Baxter, “Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response – features associated with information glut and self-inflammation” (85) No one really wants to hear our pain, and we are endlessly encouraged to not-think about things we are led to believe we cannot change. It is therefore not so far a leap to burying our own unpleasantries.

This is normal in a world where such vulnerability is met with the most unimaginable cruelties. It means there is a problem with society. And there is your Literary entrance to Horror…

Horror is a unique genre. It is all about the ugly details of how we fail each other, exploit each other, and seek vengeance upon each other.

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Yet it is also a very personal genre. Every one of us is a little bit Lovecraft. A little bit King. A little bit Poe. It’s why their writing speaks to us. Why we identify with it, and feel the need to regurgitate our own mortifications.

It is also why it is okay to not be perfect, to have flaws, and to have suffered for them.

Alone in our rooms (even as adults), we often spend way too much time tending our personal terrors, agonizing over things we cannot change, doting anxiously over perceived missteps and mistakes, aghast at our own propensity for victimhood.

The paranoid dialogue is endless, overwhelming, and even debilitating at times. But when the suggestion is made to find what scares us, we think in cartoons; we use place holders like Vampires and scaly monsters in effigy…we ignore the list of darker memories, the unspeakable horrors that haunt our dreams and stalk our hopes and supplant it with lists of petty annoyances like dress codes and politics.

The two lists are indeed quite different, but they are related, and they may be both true. The petty list elicits chuckles or empathetic nods. But it is the first that makes everyone uncomfortable, because we can see ourselves reflected in the mirror like ghosts.

And it is the first list that is most often private. It is the one that circulates in your head and makes ulcers in your stomach. THAT is the one you need to go to…because that one is real. It doesn’t matter if it seems small by comparison to Other People’s troubles. If it haunts you…you are plagued by monsters.

Horror is all about profound truth.

But understand, it is not about confession. You don’t have to write a diary entry to write truth. You do not have to be graphic. You do not have to “out” the child molester in your family. You do not have to have a child molester in your family. But like friend Vampire, you need to draw the essence of the specific fear out to create a solid story around a real Horror.

You have to create resonance. So whether you are writing about a very real personal Horror or imagining one, you have to find the common ground shared by emotions…primal emotions.

Good news: Horror is all about emotions. We all have them. And we all know what is inferred when the right emotional buttons are pushed. You are unique; but what scares you is universal because we all share the same unspoken language of fear. Likewise, how something happened to you is unique. And when you write using those situations or their possibility, no one will ever know for sure if you are being biographical or just insightful and intuitive.

All you have to do if find those unique ways of combining words to summon the images of the monster: that is subtext in its elementary form, the lump of clay all stories start with. You already know how fear makes you feel – that is what is important and potent – everything else can (and probably should be) researched.

It is also where personal experience pushes out character and scene.

This is all Stephen King territory, by the way. King is absolutely tormented by what it is to be an awkward teenager: it clearly made an impression upon him which he cannot forget and which haunts him to this day. It’s why we love him: he gets it. He knows and writes about the awful dread of an acne outbreak right before the prom with your first real crush. He writes about social group rejection. About unrequited love. About how it feels to be bullied. About hating yourself at a time everyone else seems confident and gifted. And then he makes monsters who know exactly how to manipulate those fears.

But what you don’t see is that a whole repertoire of terror is right there in you right now… just waiting to be put to good use. Whether you are twelve or eighty, I guarantee you can dredge up the memories of your most horrible days. Contrary to every piece of adult advice, they do not go away. They live in effigy in your mind forever.

So you might as well put them to work.

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Writing What You Know

This little phrase is another snipe hunt novice writers are sent on.

We think we must wait to write then, until we have worked through our first “everything.” But it is not about some vast accumulation of life experiences. It is about empathy. About sentience.

So what if you want to write about a character who commits suicide? You can’t do that and live to tell the tale.

What if a character is an addict? Is the editor suggesting you should indulge before you can write “legitimately” about it?

Let’s be smart about this; of course not. So how do you write what you know?

For one thing, writing what you know means mining your own emotional reactions to personal experience and transferring THAT to your writing.

We all have unpleasantries in our lives, bad memories, embarassments, humiliations, things that went sideways. Nobody’s life is perfect…not really. Of course, maybe the Horror is that everyone thinks your life is perfect…

But in reality, it most certainly is not. Now, if only we as writers can tap into that…to drill down to the bone…

You know how it feels. So you must take how that feels and elevate it. Give those emotions and dreads and horrors to your characters, mask it just enough that there is room for the story itself…. story is biographical but NOT biography.

You can write about a horrible event, a tragic event, a true event – for example… but in order to reach other people at their core, it has to be about the reaction to the event…You must take all of your memories of how The Event marked and marred you, and season your story with those real memories and emotions…leaving just enough off that your reader must imagine the worst that comes after. You want the reader to discover what is happening…remember show-don’t-tell? Well here it is.

But here is the deal. You don’t have to have been there. You have only to be human enough to empathize, to be able to imagine the absolute horror of it.

For example, imagine how it must feel to accidentally kill a child with your car. The emotions are immediate, visceral…unforgiving. Most of us cannot even imagine how one could successfully move beyond that moment of pure hell.

So you don’t have to have actually been there. You can indeed write about anything, as long as you remember that out there –somewhere – someone already has lived it.

You need to care enough to get it right. That means – especially if you are young – you need a reader of your work that does indeed know something about the kind of tale you are trying to tell. Someone who can give you advice and let you know if you captured the reality of it or not. If you do not have the Life Experience required to be accurate in the telling of the tale, find someone who has. It’s not that difficult.

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But you also have an obligation to do as much as you can first.

Writing what you know is all about fear. Dread. Social blunders. Awkwardness. Vulnerability…That is something we all already know intimately...because of our very own personal past experience.

You have to dig deep. Mine those emotions and nightmares and reshape them in your characters.

That is writing what you know. Dragging the resonating fears out of us (your readers) is how you write good Horror. You must make your reader uncomfortable. And that means you must make yourself uncomfortable…to scare yourself, as Stephen King says.

And keep in mind that most of our genre’s most successful writers wrote their best as young people – before Life got in its licks, but emotion was king.

Sometimes great Horror is about the raw stuff we fear as young people and utilizing the brevity of youth to just say it…

But how far should you go?

The answer: as far as it takes.

Fear is never a “tah dah!” moment. It is a seedling.

It is a conclusion the reader makes… it is not a salacious moment of abhorrent adjectives. It is not cheap. The coin is very precious and you must spend it wisely. This means that much of the monster is never seen… just a claw here, a fang there, the drag-marks made by the victim.

The secret is you want the reader to imagine the worst and if you succeed in making that happen the worst will materialize right there in your writing… BETWEEN THE LINES. Unspoken. Unwritten…in subtext.

When you are successful, the reader will come away with chills, with a haunted memory of having read your story….not necessarily the details of it, but because you described it like you were there and you dragged the reader there.

Again, Stephen King. It’s why he is so successful at scaring us.

If you are going to write about the most horrifying thing in your life, it may be the best – or the worst – writing you will ever do. But don’t give up. Keep remolding the clay. Have you said too much? Too little? Used the wrong words? The wrong monster?

Did I tell you writing is hard?

Did I tell you writing is work?

Writing is also slow torture.

And Literary Critics look for that torture to last a lifetime of writing. Literary Critics look ultimately at a writer’s catalog of works, rummaging around in World View, looking for subtle changes in the writer and the life’s work the way they looked for World View itself in each individual work. They are looking for a kind of character arc – YOURS.

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The “why” comes as part of the sum total job that a Critic does: first they find a Literary work. And then they ask: was it a fluke? Or is the writer Literary?

Because we change as Life has its way with us, it is logical that our World View would change right along with us – either growing deeper and more resolute, or resulting in an epiphany of change. That is what the Critic needs (and hopes) to see over a writer’s lifetime. It is not what you as a writer construct, but what is constructed by the act of your writing.

So what if you are an older writer who is not exactly long on time? Then a Critic needs nuance…perhaps a revelation of those changes that have already happened by presenting good characterization and a passionately true depiction of those earlier views. Yet aging is no excuse: we most certainly do continue to change as we age. And that change will continue to inform your writing…if you remain honest.

Because writing is about the most personal, the most painful, the most outrageous emotions we contain and which subsequently rule and sabotage our subconscious, typically ruining everything that matters. It is all about extracting the pain that you have spent all those years trying to bury, to deny.

Writing is about life and death. Horror is about digging up the bodies.

But more importantly, Horror is all about you – the real you, the alone-in-the-room you.

And no one can tell the story that you will, as long as you write what scares you the most and write what you know. Because to showcase that lusted-after World View, you’re going to have to get personal. You’re going to have to scare the Lit out of yourself.

And nothing scares like honesty.

 

References

Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2007.

Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2014.

Why Is Mary In the Attic? Frankenstein & the Challenge of Authorship (An Open Salon Re-Post)


(In this Women-in-Horror month re-post from my defunct Open Salon blog, “The Horror” originally published on February 16, 2015, I want to share with you a second case of Literary gender assault which I referenced in the previous post. This is a real “controversy”… a debate, and a Critical argument being discussed in academia and elsewhere. What I ask you to do is to read this post and ask “why” it is even being entertained…)

Most women who write and read Horror are used to the idea that it is predominantly men in the driver’s seat of our canon. Most of us are fine with the works chosen to represent canon. After all, we girls have Mary, author of Frankenstein. Yet a closer look reveals the very real reason the arc of feminism has risen through the Critical ashes: because several “someones” have been trying to put our Mary in the attic since the publication of Frankenstein.

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“…the first edition published anonymously in London. Mary’s name appears on the second edition…” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83387030570722338/

 

How many of know that there is (even today) a theory which postulates that the real author of Frankenstein was Mary’s husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley and/or any combination of he and his Famous Writer friends?

Why? Because a decent woman should not and – more importantly – could not write such a critically acclaimed work…especially a woman of nineteen.

This is hideous – even for our genre. Because what message does this send to young women writers of Horror? What does it say to writers of anything?

For those who have read my prior posts about Literary Criticism, this is where Roland Barthes and his dead authors meet the pavement of reality. We and our Critics need to think very carefully about how much biographical minutiae we really want to require in Literary Criticism, and how much it matters. We also need to recognize that if we do decide that biography is relevant, that – well, quite literally in this case – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…

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Conspiracy Theory

When one thinks of revising Literary Criticism, theories of conspiracy are not among the typical fare. Indeed, having any Critic of merit present such an argument – even in light of his times (and Critic was a man’s job in those early days) – flies in the face of modern Critical giants like Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and his own theory about the importance of keeping dead authors dead.

This theory that a large conspiracy took place to make Mary the author as a cover or a joke by a group of male poets and essay writers dredges up a Need-to-Know everything one can about every author and the circumstances of the birth of a work. It heightens the importance of copyright and the genesis of intellectual property, it takes the focus off of the work and the message of the work and makes it all about the author and the author’s times.

Is that really why a writer writes? So that Critics can thrash about in one’s personal and private existence and air the most intimate details of one’s life with the written work left as a mere afterthought? Is it really all about the writer? Do we want it to be?

One has to ask those questions and be prepared to answer them if one is equally willing to entertain the idea that Mary Shelley is our modern “who was Shakespeare” mystery.

One has to look at the motivations of all of the parties involved in such a conspiracy theory– including the very Critics who allege and support that a conspiracy was afoot. This started – after all – during a time in which decent women certainly didn’t write beyond invitations to social events and demure correspondence… and most definitely didn’t write like that (except that Mary’s own mother most certainly did). In fact, decent women were not to think at all about the world or its complicated subjects; it was not the place of women to speculate on the doings and the motivations of the doings of men. If it wasn’t about placating their husbands, raising children and looking pretty, about decorating the patriarchal parlor, proper ladies did not do it.

In such a world (argue conspiracy Critics), how could a nineteen-year-old woman with three illegitimate children to her credit write a work like Frankenstein – right under the noses of famous Romantic Poets like her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – or his friends also allegedly present that night in Lake Geneva– none other than Lord Byron and his personal companion/physician John William Polidori, who was also a published essay writer and who nurtured his own professional writing aspirations (Hitchcock 26-27).

Isn’t it more likely argue those Critics that such talent would have emanated from professionally established Writers and Poets? Didn’t Shelley himself admit to editing the novel in question?

Forget for a moment that “no poet of any renown would write a novel; no elevated person would stoop to read one” (Hitchcock 25). Forget the “shock” that “a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form” (24). What would be the point in publishing it at all? If it could only be a professional amusement between poets, why drag it out into daylight? To put one “over” on the Critics?

Such would seem an awful lot of work with a serious risk of discovery and subsequent damage to a poet’s reputation… all for a giggle. Even given the indiscretions of youth, as well as the Idiot Gene that we all have encountered at one party or another, what is the likelihood that these young men would toy with their own tenuous reputations?

But Percy Bysshe Shelley admits to editing the work…He was present that night and many others…isn’t it at least feasible? Possible?

Many Critics thought so. Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao state in their introduction to The Annotated Frankensten:

“Confronting a novel propelled by male adventures and transgressions, saturated in the languages and ideas of Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin, Byron, Shelley, and contemporary scientists such as Davy and Darwin, a novel, moreover, known to have been shopped by Percy Shelley, many reviewers assumed that the author was male – probably Shelley himself, or some other deranged, atheist Godwin disciple.” (53)

Perhaps we should pause here a moment to refresh. Frankenstein was written in an estate house (Villa Diodati) at Lake Geneva once rented by Milton in 1638 (Hitchcock 24), Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron were publishing contemporaries of Shelley, Byron was a friend and present during the alleged contest, the “atheist Godwin” was Mary’s father, and London newspapers of the time were publishing tales of “galvanism” in which Luigi Aldini “toured Europe during the first years of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how electrical charges could move not only the legs of frogs but also the eyes and tongues of sevred ox heads as well (Hitchcock 33).

All of these things would have had influence on our Mary, who at one time recalled “how discussions of at Villa Diodati of these scientific marvels had filled her with ideas” (34). Indeed, “poetry and science, Gothic horror and reanimation—these topic tingled in the Geneva air that summer of 1816”…(34) How could they not influence any imaginative, thinking young adult? But more interestingly, how could they influence only the male members of the Geneva party on that night of nights?

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Shelley versus Shelley

I say these conspiracy Critics must be fair in their use of historic and biographical detail. What Percy Bysshe Shelley was exposed to and influenced by, so was his wife.

Some may feel the need to “compromise” by saying that the possibility of editing by Shelley would indicate that he at least co-authored the novel… to which I ask, where are the residual checks for the editors of Harry Potter or Tolkien?

Editing is not writing. Editing is about organizational and compositional guidance. It is about streamlining the flow of consciousness, the application and follow-through of logic and the rules of grammar. It is not creating…it is shaping the created. It is about dressing up a story in its finest attire.

And indeed Shelley admits to “editing” the work and Critics have long complained that his influence is indeed “obvious” and that “the manuscript shows assistance at every point…so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator” (Wolfson & Levao 11-12) – which is in itself if true a sign of poor editing – and that while his hand in the novel improved some technical quality, it also threatened the integrity of the novel in places where he clearly insinuated himself (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

Does that not imply that it would have been a far different novel had Shelley written it? Or is it merely evidence of … editing not by a professional editor?

Distinguished Professor of English Literature, author and essayist Anne Mellor says something important in her review of the evidence. Mellor, “while acknowledging Percy’s improvements on several levels—from grammar and syntax to narrative logic, ‘thematic resonance,’ and the ‘complexity of the monster’s character’ – also notes Percy’s own missteps: rhetorical inflations and Latinizings, a penchant for imposing ‘his own favorite philosophical, political, and poetic theories on a text which either contradicted them or to which they were irrelevant’ and revisions that distorted Mary’s intentions and ideas [my emphasis]” (Wolfson & Lavao 54).

And isn’t his admission that he functioned as agent, and both his and Mary’s admission that he functioned as editor(Hitchcock 70-73) good enough for conspiracy Critics?

If not, one should look at supporting evidence; for example, despite the loss of the original draft manuscript, what of the copytext manuscript which “argues very strongly against’ the story of Mary-as-scribe “(unless it is an elaborate hoax that they [Percy’s advocates] and their conspiring friends cooked up to fool future scholars)” (Wolfson & Levao 54)? J.W. Polidori confirmed Mary’s “busyness” the “day after” her inspiring reverie, and the only surviving “draft she worked on shows a lively and affectionate relation between the older published poet and his talented lover” (54). Some might say this is merely more evidence of those willing to contribute to conspiracy. But at some point, one would have to be willing to suspend an awful lot of logic.

Furthermore, it would seem that if this document could be used or cited as evidence against Mary as author, then it should also be evidence for Mary. In fact, for Critics who accept Mary as Frankenstein’s author, it is this and other existing documents that bear the greatest weight:

“Here appear numerous local rephrasings in Percy’s hand, most (but not all) retained in the publication of 1818, occasional teasings of Mary about some of her habits of style, and a few ideas about local plot developments. Although Percy was an encouraging, attentive reader and a caring adviser, Mary’s primary authorship is confirmed by documents (letters and memoirs) containing comments from everyone who knew them – Byron, Leigh Hunt, Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, Godwin – that refer to her working on Frankenstein and regarding the novel as her project” (54).

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And why does this Critically intense scrutiny of the author – if the rightful author were Mary, stop at calling her a nineteen year old woman? Where is the acknowledgement of her professional pedigree, upbringing and present company?

Her parents were well-known writers and activists – William Godwin – a philosopher, publisher and social critic, a “brilliantly popular writer in the 1790’s,” her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, a feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both parents being acclaimed novelists and essay writers (Hitchcock 27)). Our Mary had been writing since she herself was ten years old, had been a reader in her father’s vast library, the lover and wife of Percy Shelley. Her entire life had exposed her to the arts and the writing community along with the likes of Samuel Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Milton and Lord Byron to fuel her imagination. She was a daughter of activists coming of age during the rise of the Gothic, surrounded by poets and philosophers.

Now place her in the times of rising technology – the era of electricity and science. Place her at those contemporary and surprisingly common séances and lectures on the possible reanimation of corpses. See the arcs of electricity that were common affectations of lighting demonstrations and the rise of the Gothic period in literature, the rise of the Victorians as social culture.

Now remember what it was like to be nineteen. Remember the raw emotions, the primal fears, the easy way in which monstrosities rose in the imagination and dreams came vivid in their visitations in the night. If you are a writer, remember how rich and tactile an experience it was to write at nineteen. Remember the ideas? Remember how easily monsters came unbidden? Remember the perverse joy of Horror?

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Then consider what it must be to witness the death of a child, to be surrounded by infidelities, disinheritances, public scrutiny, suicides, the endless pursuit of creditors, children birthed and dying out of wedlock… to constantly try to hide or disguise the decline of wealth, to be young and in love as passionately as you are afraid of the changing tides of your times. Imagine all of this in your primal imagination on a dark and violently stormy night with the reading of ghost stories and the ultimate challenge of writing one of your own as a contest of youth.

Consider also what it was to be nineteen in 1816. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years… (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/davidjstokes/1800.htm and http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm) This means that even a morose teenager had some measure of right to be contemplating death and its meaning, because our Mary would have rightfully assumed she was at middle age.

Consider to be wrapped in all of that, and to be a writer. Consider the company she kept—in fact, visit the world of the Romantic Poets for a real taste of the Gothic…

Even using the very rules of conspiracy set about by those anti-Mary critics, one has to acknowledge that Mary had the necessary background – the chops as it were – to have done the deed herself. She had motive and opportunity.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Many modern Critics admit that Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s finest work, that much of her subsequent novels (and yes, she most certainly did write other novels) were lackluster by comparison, seemed somehow distracted and not as focused. But our Mary was also widowed by then, and lost even more children to untimely death.

Try writing novels and not having real life impact your voice and plot. Try being a woman with a complicated reputation in those times. Try keeping a roof over your head.

Perhaps the pressures of being a woman, and a writer, and the possible author of a work like Frankenstein weighed heavily – even like a burden upon her.

Then if all else fails, look at Harper Lee, who it was once said believed that she had nowhere to go but down after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Truths do not matter. What matters is what the writer believes when she is writing.

How do we know why Mary’s other novels were not as successful? How do we possibly get in her head?

Again, I say that Roland Barthes is right: we don’t belong in writer’s heads. We as Critics or readers don’t have a right to their history. We need to appreciate the work as the work.

Maybe we don’t even have a right to know for sure that Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelly wrote Frankenstein. But she said she did. Her husband said she did. All of the people who were there that night at Lake Geneva said she did. They have even found peripheral information – letters, journals, etc. corroborating those very claims – from people who knew the players of the time. No one alludes to a conspiracy but those odd, dissatisfied Critics who believe a woman of nineteen could not have possibly written a work of merit – especially if she were married to an established writer, a man of position...

How incredibly sad. And how incredibly bigoted and sexist.

It is for these very types of reasons that women in Horror today feel skeptical of the publishing machinery that makes canon fodder of them and meteoric successes of more men than women in our genre. We have to question because there are just enough idiots out there to give us cause.

Case in point: every biography of Mary Shelley includes mention of the controversy, mentions the one idiot doubt of her authorship of the work known as Frankenstein. The disenfranchisement of her work has become associated with her very history and tainted the wondrousness of the novel itself. The only male author subjected to the same scrutiny is Shakespeare. (My, Mary, what good company those skeptical Critics have put you in….)

And to the Critics who believe that a nineteen-year-old could not possibly write such worthy stuff, I say that Percy Bysshe Shelley was not that much older, and gee whiz look at H.P. Lovecraft and what his childhood nightmares did for him. I say quit trying to make controversy where historically there is none.

Quit trying to shove Mary in the attic.

We need young women writers in Horror. We need them because they become old women writers in Horror. We need them for vision and the carelessness and impetuousness of youth. We need them and our canon needs them.

The birthing of Frankenstein as a novel is one of the most documented and argued cases of inception we can summon into argument. How it came to be, when it came to be, why it came to be and a list of all the pedigreed witnesses to the birth are available for anybody who wants to do a little research and reading. Ultimately, there is little foundation for supporting the theory of a conspiracy; it’s not only unlikely, it’s just plain weird.

So get off her. Let her breathe. Our times and modern Critics are busting Mary out of the attic prison sexist Criticisms have attempted to make for her. And there are bigger reasons for leaving it to rest than Conspiracy egos can support. Bigotry has had its time, its opportunity, a socially constructed stage upon which to prove its allegations. Nothing came of it except one important truth:

She’s our Mary. She is the rightful birthmother of Frankenstein. And we as readers and writers of the genre couldn’t be more proud or defensive of her right to be. No matter who she was married to or partied with on one dark and stormy night.

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References

Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: a Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, c2007.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley: a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.

Wolfson, Susan J. and Ronald Levao, eds. The Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, c2012

 

Girly-Girly Horror: Daphne Du Maurier & Gothic Romance (Because It’s Women-In-Horror Month)


For most of us who read and write Horror, there is an almost automatic tendency to cringe when we hear the word “romance” associated with our genre. Even with blockbusters which have encompassed the one-time popularity of amorous vampires to taunt us, we of the Horror genre prefer the more suspenseful, monstrous-scary kinds of relationships in our fiction.

Romance, we insist, is a whole ‘nother creature – one we banish happily to the Harlequin aisle. Romance is girly-girly stuff.

But not so fast. Because if one really embraces the genre we have come to associate with psychos and monsters and a host of demons and witches, then we must embrace our beginnings in the classics – including our beginnings in the medieval romance and folktale fairy princesses which begat the Gothic Romance and Gothick (so christened with the ‘k’ by writers like Victoria Nelson to differentiate “new” Gothic from Medievally inspired Gothic ) subgenres which lead to where we are.

It is Gothic Romance – the provenance of writers like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and one Daphne DuMaurier – which put Horror on the map (and in particular, the Literary map).

Forget what you think you know about romance. Because it is these ladies who put the paranormal into romance and laid the groundwork in setting and characterization for a lot of modern Horror.

If you want to understand and appreciate our genre – especially including the role of women who contributed to its modern shape – you need to read Gothic Romance. And I suggest strongly you start with a book called Rebecca.

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Girling Up Horror All Over the Place

For most of us, our exposure to romance left us covered in a kind of gauzy, glittery, pink-fairy-wing kind of stupor, or drenches us in the stereotypes of bodice-ripping erotica. It is far too saccharine for our Horror tastes. But that also means that we have had our heads turned by pulp romance, which – not unlike pulp Horror – is a subgenre that caters to a specific audience. Before and alongside that type of romance is Gothic Romance – tales that leak in sinister designs from drafty castles and isolated manses, tales that reek of the supernatural and dark, dark secret histories.

It is at once a genre of deft flexibility, and perhaps that is how and why women writers so expertly and effectlively took charge of it.

Explains Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier and the Gothic Tradition”:

“Gothic fiction possesses a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. The sublime landscapes and imperilled maidens of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, seemingly bear no relation to the city streets and macabre body transformations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or to Henry James’s psychological ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), and yet all three tales are, undeniably, Gothic. Regardless of their entirely different storylines and settings all three share the traditional Gothic qualities of a disturbing atmosphere, a carefully described landscape and setting, a sense of the uncanny and the impression that events are out of kilter with the rational world.” (Buzwell)

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Change, as we have seen even in our lifetimes, is survival for fiction. It has to move with its readers in order to move its readers.

This is something we see regularly in Horror: monsters evolve, ghosts change tactics and motivations, monsters drift between human origins and supernatural ones. This has to happen or our audience becomes too sophisticated, too conditioned to be easily disturbed, our stories flat or trite.

It is an easy conclusion in hindsight then, that “Romance” was doomed to change, and that the Gothic period of writing would bleed from real world wounds, from actual histories being lived by the readers the stories were being written for. We forget that stories about the 1800’s were once “modern” and that readers understood first-hand the travails of their protagonists.

But this is why Gothic Romance evolved from its more straight-forward origins. Readers of the 1700’s and 1800’s could only identify so far with medieval times and cultural constraints. Readers always tend to look for stories written with them in mind, preferring their habitual devouring of story pressed through a prism they can at least imagine; readers need to see themselves in fictionalized tales.

Gothic Romance descends from stories wrought from the romance languages, making use of medieval tales of knights and ladies in distress. Where “Romance and Gothick” are not (according to the critic Northrop Frye) “two separate literary movements, one high and one low drawing from the same sources, the Gothick should be regarded as the foundation of the Romantic” (Nelson 97).

But change happens slowly, unevenly. There were writers – female writers of the Gothic – writing well before Gothic Romance became fashionable. They wrote in lesser known publications for women, and their names are harder to remember, their works harder to find. Unfortunately, it far too often takes writers with the panache, style, and timing of J.K. Rowlings and Jane Austens to awaken fame, fortune, and opportunity for others.

With the deft pens of writers like Charlotte Brontë, whose work Jane Eyre was the main transformative work to lift The Castle of Otranto (also considered the first true modern Horror story) into what we see as “modern” Literature, the genre of Gothic Romance exploded onto and all over the publishing scene, borne by the imaginations of women who it appears, saw things a little differently.

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In her book Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, Victoria Nelson asserts that men and women write Romance differently, and with the rise of Gothic Romance, women transformed the genre by refashioning the protagonist and the conclusion of early romance into what has become coined “the Female Gothic.”

Formerly, male writers were wont to write tales in which “[a helpless young woman is pitted against] a devilish villain whom she is going to be forced to marry (The Castle of Otranto [by Horace Walpole]) or who forcibly ravishes her (The Monk [by Matthew Gregory Lewis])

“In the female-authored Gothicks that followed Walpole, in contrast, the single heroine (whose point of view we usually inhabit) escapes the villain’s clutches and marries the young man. Where the early male Gothick writers, drawing directly from the medieval romance tradition, used a faux-medieval aristocratic cast of characters, the women Gothick writers frequently introduced a bourgeois female protagonist into the mix. Where male authors favored supernatural elements, female authors – most famously [Ann] Radcliffe herself – like to titillate their readers with ghostly, chill-inducing phenomena before revealing the human agency behind them.” (97-98)

And with the advent of this new perspective and the emergence of publishing venues for women and their readers, the Gothic Romance was unleashed. Gone was the tendency toward the male-favored tragic ending, and in came the more female-friendly happy ending. But along with the surge in female storytelling, came the disfavor of Literary Critics of the time.

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Long seen as sensational, overly sentimental writing, it took writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to capture Critical respect. Says Nelson:

“Literary critics have not been kind to Gothick romance. Fred Botting has dubbed contemporary women’s romance ‘Girly-girly Gothic’ after Mark Twain’s label ‘girly-girly romance’ for the identical literature of the nineteenth century. Traditional Gothick scholars and literary critics alike have delivered scathing and condescending critiques and commentators have noted the continued low status of the women’s romance in mainstream culture despite being statistically the most popular literary genre.” (106)

Enter Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose most preeminent work, Rebecca, has sold well over 3 million copies, some 4000 copies per month since 1938 and has never gone out of print (House), yet who could not in her lifetime garner the least Critical respect (facts to which today’s Stephen King fans can relate).

For far too long her work was considered “standard” women’s fare, and not in the same class as writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; and one must recognize that the Curse of Bestsellerdom is an enduring one – one that has been around as long as there have been Literary Critics who cannot fathom the fickle passions of the masses.

Far too often it takes decades, if not centuries, after an author’s death for Critics to reconcile knee-jerk reactions to sales figures with what is really going on in an author’s writing. Recounts Greg Buzwell in his article “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature”:

“In some respects Daphne du Maurier was a victim of her own success. Her prose was so smooth, and her stories so packed with incident, that her gifts as a storyteller often overshadowed the more serious aspects of her work. It is only when you look beyond the surface polish of her stories that you begin to notice her brilliant and eclectic use of Gothic imagery.” (Buzwell)

Still think you haven’t heard of her?

Ah, ye of little faith, O Horror Fans…she is also the author of one of Horror’s most iconic stories, tagged (and therefore probably misremembered) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s” The Birds…

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Author, Author

All too often we have our attention directed to authors acknowledged and endorsed as Canon Greats, and we tend to not question the absence of a name here or there, as though there is a kind of security or gilding of the Critic’s lily in propping up “established” theories of Literary evolution and the roles certain authors allegedly play in it.

We shy away from those labelled “popular” or “mainstream” authors as thought their contributions are somehow less valid, less impactful. And we often do this whenever there is the slightest whiff of controversy – too often assuming that the lack of a Critical voice to say otherwise somehow legitimizes the exclusion of an author in the discussion of genre.

This tends to happen historically most often to female authors. And while we are getting better at deflecting such tendencies, we do little to clear the air of suspicion for deceased and historically significant writers as though to do so will cause our own reputations to be sucked into the vortex of unsavory scandal – or worse, will make an enemy of the Literary Critic/academic community.

Daphne Du Maurier is just such an author. Despite numerous accusations of plagiarism during her career – all of which reached legal resolution in her and her publishers’ favor, the cloud of disgrace associated with those defeated claims continues to disparage her reputation and deprive her of her rightful place in genre history.

Legal confirmation of her innocence is a matter of record. And yet Du Maurier is seldom mentioned with or within genre references and Critical essays with any regularity. It is as though she is being disparaged as a “girly-girly romance” writer – a pulp writer – a sentimental sensationalist instead of what she was – a Gothic writer who strongly influenced not only Romance, but the Horror and Suspense/Thriller genres.

It is time that changed. And Horror should be the genre coming to her defense. Both Rebecca and The Birds were genre-changers for us, building directly upon the psychological terror platform of Edgar Allan Poe.

But it is also time for modern women in Horror to demand Critical engagement in such circumstances as the accusation of plagiarism – not only against Du Maurier, but also against Mary Shelley (who some claim published Frankenstein under her name after her husband wrote it). Ugly rumors and greedy grabs at sensationalism should be met with immediate Critical address, and not allowed to hang over the work and reputations of such writers.

Especially because this happens historically and disproportionately to women – accusation and Critical ostracism – women need to call it out for what it is: a form of professional bullying which needs to be stopped by the nearest thing we as writers have as a governing body: the Literary Critical/Academic community. Mention of accusation is one thing; but reputations should cease to be impugned once the law has ruled on the issue. Such writers should not be omitted from works referenced in genre discussion, or from Critical analysis.

For years I have sought and expected to find essays on Du Maurier’s work, perhaps even Critical expositions. Yet references have been rare and piteously fleeting when found. I find this to be shameful, especially if not only an American issue.

And while Du Maurier is not as “well-known” in the United States as she is in the UK, not as widely read perhaps, and even possibly avoided due to her reputation for alleged anti-American sentiment in her day, her work is more than worthy of attention in this country, her name the kind which belongs on reading lists.

If a writer inspires the readership of a genre, changes the genre, and is referenced as an influence by other writers (as Daphne Du Maurier frequently is), he or she is Literarily relevant – deserving of Critical attention and (if necessary) defense.

Rebecca is one such story… It is often remembered with the same misty reverence by its intensely loyal fans as Jane Eyre…

The story of Rebecca grabs the reader from the very first line: “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly…” and it holds the reader entranced with the kind of language that mesmerizes Stephen King fans – accessible language that makes each scene familiar, identifiable, relatable. It is a woman’s story, one that penetrates into a common innocence, a common need for loving and being loved, the sense that we will never quite belong and whole histories await to bedevil us even as they precede us.

This is the what makes Du Maurier a favorite among favorites. With so many of her stories, we can not only imagine her heroines, we could be them.

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Says Christian House in his article for The Telegraph titled “Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy”:

“In August 1938, Rebecca caught the zeitgeist, drawing on the glamour of country society and the feeling of impending catastrophe that permeated the pre-war years. Put coarsely, it is a novel about a dead woman and a house. Both of which were drawn from the author’s life.

“‘Mum used to get fed up talking about it,” says [her son Kits] Browning. “She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.'”

[and further that]

“The seed of the Rebecca story lay in Daphne du Maurier’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancee … (House)

So firmly nestled among Du Maurier’s success were those facts of her life — and that in the end, it makes her even more human, even more intuitive as a storyteller. And yet like all women writers, there was always lurking in the shadows the problem of being a woman in a man’s world. Continues Buzwell:

“As a child du Maurier often wished she was a boy. In part this was because boys at that time had greater freedoms and opportunities than girls, but with du Maurier the desire went further. She even invented a male alter ego for herself, named Eric Avon, along with a colourful past for him in which he had been to Rugby. Eric Avon was adventurous and fearless, qualities that Daphne du Maurier had in abundance but which she was never fully allowed to express because of her gender.

“As a writer, du Maurier was able to explore this masculine side of her nature vicariously through her fiction. Many of her most famous books, including My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand have male narrators. Even the very early tale The Doll is told from a male perspective, the narrator finding himself rejected by the woman he loves in favour of a mechanical doll – something which, inevitably, has devastating implications for his own identity. The more you look into du Maurier’s work, the more wheels within wheels you begin to see, and the darker the imagery becomes. It is only when you look beyond her narrative brilliance that you begin to see the haunting darkness and complexity of her work.”

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Such wishes and imaginings are – if nothing else – the ghost that walks among all female-authored fiction. We always second-guess ourselves, our worth, our potential and our right to success. We wonder if we would have fared better as men, if our work would have found better Critical reception had the byline been male.

This is natural in a patriarchal society, even when we hope things are better for us than it was for women who preceded us, even when “things have changed.” We all too often find that they have not changed so very much, and there are just enough mines in the minefield that we can never truly be sure of our footing.

And when we read prominent women writers, we tend to discover troubled waters beneath the prose. This is how we write ghosts without actually writing ghosts. For example, Buzwell explains how Du Maurier builds on the tradition of ghosts as built by Ann Radcliffe:

“Daphne du Maurier’s work also contains echoes of Ann Radcliffe, whose novel The Mysteries of Udolpho came to epitomize the first golden age of Gothic literature. In Radcliffe’s work the seemingly supernatural is nearly always revealed to have a rational explanation. Du Maurier’s work exhibits similar characteristics. In Rebecca, for example, the sinister character of Mrs. Danvers is just that – a character, not a malevolent ghost; while Rebecca herself, who dominates the book without ever making a single living appearance, is a ghost only in the sense that she haunts the imaginations of the living protagonists. This psychological element contains echoes of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw…”

Indeed this is the magical recipe for originality in Horror: the taking of a device from a traditionally-established writer and altering it subtly with the result that the difference jars the plot and the reader alike. But it must always ring true.

This is how we know Du Maurier is not only Literary, but a writer of the feminine Gothic where the female protagonist’s own insecurities has captured us and simultaneously modernized the ghost story, providing the scaffolding for another generation of writers to build upon.

Yet female authors, when they do well, tend to come under scrutiny. Since the early days of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, a woman’s ability to come up with her own ideas is always suspect, and an illogical and random variable constraint of possible talent is arbitrarily assigned to her capacity as a writer. The success and similarities of Rebecca to the absolute conventions and themes of Gothic Romance made Du Maurier a target. Plots repeat in fiction. And they often repeat more noticeably in subgenres. Yet even as she was dogged by accusations of plagiarism for Rebecca, Du Maurier won all court decisions, and still the spectre of accusations haunted the author all of her life. She lived in mortal fear of disclosing publicly the secrets and details of her own life, of her writing process, of her faults as a woman. (De Rosnay 186-191)

This remained so until her death at 81.

And despite numerous attempts at interviews and accommodating the curious, Du Maurier was at all times a typical writer – insecure, private, perhaps even a bit paranoid of the intentions of others. But she was something else: she was a pivotal player in the Gothic Romance genre, a not-too-distant relative of the Horror genre.

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She should be mandatory reading for writers of Horror, particularly female writers, and writers of the ghost story. She should be on a required reading list for Classic Literature.

Even so, perhaps you are wondering…

Why Daphne Du Maurier? What leads me to choose her as my Women-In-Horror Month writer? Why not Charlotte Bronte or Ann Radcliffe?

Because Daphne Du Maurier is least known in this country and for all of the wrong reasons.

So much of her work has been repeatedly made into films by directors who overshadow her name as an author – (The Birds) Alfred Hitchcock, (Don’t Look Now) Nicholas Roeg, (Jamaica Inn) Alfred Hitchcock, (My Cousin Rachel) Roger Michell, and (Frenchman’s Creek) Ferdinand Fairfax…and because even when we read her work, we get caught up in her stories – haunted by them – without remembering who wrote them.

Yet she is a vital part of Horror genre history. She is a major contributing player in the psychological American roots of Horror writing and filmmaking. Who among us does not count The Birds among the most relevant, inspirational, and yet disturbing Horror of our lives?

The absence of Daphne Du Maurier from our reading lists and our analysis of the history of Literature, especially Gothic Romance and subsequently Horror, has cheated us. We are blinded to a significant Literary connection to our classical roots and – most importantly in Horror – to our British roots.

Du Maurier is a transitionary writer for Horror fans and authors. She is where the Gothic romance becomes the Gothic romance. Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey are the noises we hear in the dark. Du Maurier is the frisson.

If we are going to improve our knowledge of our own genre – especially as women writers – we need to re-evaluate how we study Classic Literature. We need to abandon the idea that our educational system has the money or wherewithal to broadly educate us in such a way that we can see the Horror from here…Instead we have to look for the Horror ourselves. We have to educate ourselves.

Having abbreviated reading lists in our schools and reduced exposure to Literary Classics in general makes this worse. Writers who are not Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters are almost ritually abandoned in our Lit classes. And the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the Gothic in general as a subgenre except as a setting device is another.

Yet especially in the assessment of contemporary American Literature, we bemoan the lack of continuity with our past, with the lack of originality, the absence of fire that animated so much early English-language Literature. This complaint has spilled over into genres and subgenres like Horror, where so many of our rejections reflect this professional frustration.

It is time Horror recognized Daphne Du Maurier for her contribution to our genre. It is time we stepped up. It is one thing to excuse such childish, professionally irresponsible avoidance and ostracizing behavior when we read about it as history. It is another when we realize our own silence reinforces the inaccuracy and injustice of prejudiced exclusion.

It is time we opened our eyes. The British continue to outpace us in accomplished Horror writing. We continue to flop about like dying fish out of water.

I say wade in. The water is fine. The water is still mostly British. And when it comes to studying women’s writing and the Gothic Romances, nobody does it better than Daphne Du Maurier.

Go on. Scare yourself. You’re gonna love it.

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References

Buzwell, Greg. “Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic tradition.” Retrieved 1/31 from http://www.dumaurier.org/menu_page.php?id=122

Crace, John. “Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca Taught Me How to Love Literature. Retrieved 1/25/2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-classic-literature

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1998.

De Rosnay, Tatiana. Manderley Forever: a Biography of Daphne Du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c2017.

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” Retrieved 1/15/2018 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10248724/Daphne-du-Maurier-always-said-her-novel-Rebecca-was-a-study-in-jealousy.html

Nelson, Victoria. Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c2012.