When we look at the tradition of Horror, we tend to embrace its ethnocentrism as a characteristic of the genre – a living trope, if you will.
We think that the construction of the genre happened in a Western vacuum and that there exists some kind of “proof” that no one else shares in the tradition of true scary tale telling. It is as though it is not legitimate if it is not published in an English-speaking country and contains predictable Western characters living out a familiar plot. We point at the acknowledged (and therefore “official”) history of Horror without recognizing that those who have judged our stories and uplifted the genre’s profile to (at times) cult status have also been “traditionally” white and male and Western – the same ones who historically controlled the presses and the public’s choice of content and access to the written word. Are we right, then, to assume that no one else is (or has ever been) writing Horror of value?
The answer is a resounding no; Horror is neither exclusive nor rare – not in experience nor the storytelling. And perhaps the key as to why we seem at a creative and Literary stalemate in our modern writings is ensconced in the significance of “how” – in having fashioned this odd, culturally exclusive bubble – all of our best efforts have resulted in a kind of genetically compromised inbreeding of ideas. In our hand-over-fist attempts to understand what we think Horror formula is or should be, perhaps it is we who have become the victims of our own intent to discredit others.
This means our contemporary problems (especially in American Horror) may well have grown in its isolated and lonesome Petrie dish to be not only about who is telling what stories, but about the future of the American side of the genre. We are unquestionably at a Literary and creative impasse.
And we had better start asking what happens when all of the 1970s-1980s bestselling authors stop writing. What exactly will we do then?
Robbing Horror From Other Cradles
At a time when we are unwilling or unable to create the kind of Horror that excites our readers and grows our constituency, we need an infusion of original DNA – the kind of DNA that descends from folklore and fairy tales – the gritty stuff of childhood fears. And we need to do this shamelessly – borrowing from those older traditions tucked neatly into vague heritages because while we were being all puffy and proud about our modern sophistication and electronic gadgets, what we call The Old World was still telling scary tales of things that go bump in the night. And people who grow up with those storytelling traditions clearly have a thing or two to teach us about where we all (and our monsters) come from.
For those of us on this side of the pond, it’s time to climb out of the creative box we have put ourselves in – from what we call our genre to who writes in it. We have no proprietary rights here; just because some smarty-pants marketing department decided to print the word “Horror” on the spines of countless Western paperbacks in the 1970’s does not mean it is the correct name to call our genre, or the one with which the rest of the world concurs. Nor does it mean that the rest of the world interprets “Horror” in the same way as we do in the West.
Why has our Horror all become one-dimensional? Homogenous and flat? Because “we” have decided what formulas constitute Horror, all to the denigration of other traditions of storytelling.
Yet isn’t that where we got our ideas about Horror in the first place? It’s time we confessed the truth: the West did not invent Horror. We may have perfected a branch of the tree, but we are not the whole of it. Our roots go much, much deeper and come from afar…
And every person who came here brought a little piece of that with them.
We cannot claim to not-know this entirely. Our genre’s historic use of Orientalism and racism to further heighten a presumed white reader’s fears or to elevate the exotic mystery and exploit the willing ignorance of a class of readers groomed to see themselves perfected in an ethnocentric mirror is no different in Horror than in any other genre. But in Horror, it has fast become this almost-necessary ingredient we are directed to mimic. Because we have not been able to “move the Literary needle” in American Horror since Lovecraft, that is where we are directed to learn about how to write the good stuff.
But what if we don’t want to because no one does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft, and most importantly, because the rest of us are no longer as threatened by different peoples or cultures? What happens when dread and fear turn away from dimly lit rural areas with secret histories to vibrancy, exploration and inclusion? What happens to Lovecraft mimicry?
What happens when we have outgrown that narrow Worldview?
Today most of us are able to acknowledge the pinch of this and dash of that from other cultures and folkways that have driven the more muted successes that line the cages of our genre and we are increasingly curious about it. From Japanese filmmakers to Russian folklore, we are intrigued by the monsters some part of us always suspected were watching us from the shadows. More importantly, we are starting to ask what happens when in following the Lovecraft-enamored lead of the Western Horror Establishment we continue to drown out international and “minority”- voiced Horror, displacing it as an anomaly or christening it Other-relevant “Literature” to keep it at a safe distance.
Horror should never be “safe.” And trying to hold onto Lovecraft and the singular whiteness of Horror is contributing to the lack of historical awareness so necessary in our genre.
It so reminds me of that unfortunate music fan who suggested that Paul McCartney was lucky to receive a “break” from Kanye West and might someday make something of himself “Cuz Kanye just handed this guy a career”… (not a shining moment.)
Why don’t we KNOW where we come from? And isn’t it possible that this very tone deafness is one of the contributing causes to the endless cookie cutter “plateauing” of scary in the genre as we know it?
If we really dare to look at the Horror genre’s origins, we will find the richest veins in folk and fairy tales from our Old Countries – the very things an “advanced” and “civilized” culture likes to mock. But in the dark of the night, isn’t that where Horror gets under our skin uninvited, rummaging about and prickling our skins? Does it really matter where the scary images come from if they are coming after us?
It’s time we started researching the rest of the world’s stories – rediscovering some, and hearing others for the first time. Because these are the stories and the traditions we carry with us as we move through the world, colliding with each other. Of course this means learning about other people, how they live and think. It means letting ourselves sink into other life ways in order to find the Horror we crave.
And it means allowing ourselves to be corrected… To acknowledge real history, real traditions, and the real Peoples who live them intimately. It also means admitting to ourselves that we live in bastardized, cannibalized times. We bring fragments of Horrors from our lineages, and those halflings collide unceremoniously with Things That Were Already Here. Isn’t it time we exploited our own ignorance? Paid the price of our own desire to minimize our once hidden roots? Our personal roots?
We don’t need sacred Indian Burial Grounds or gypsy curses to amp up our Horrors… we have our own sins making monsters in urban factories right now.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read those first-hand accounts and value them for themselves…to inspire and remind us that we have our own stories if we will just stop and look. It helps us to see how other people tell these tales, to “spin” our vocabulary, to look askew at what we cannot see directly. We need to, not only for ourselves, but because of the obvious: we no longer live in a vacuum no matter how many walls we endeavor to build. We need to see that even Lovecraft would have a hard time being Lovecraft today.
And is it really such a bad thing – really – to stop “using” other peoples whose customs we don’t know to scare our readers with? Because in a global economy, there are no secrets – not really. If a writer makes something up for the benefit of plot, he or she will ultimately be exposed for the careless or arrogantly conceived error and deservedly so. But there are wondrous stories to be had, to savor just as they are – cultural accents and all.
Of course, this means getting out of our comfort zone. But that is the nature of Horror, isn’t it? And haven’t we learned that wondrous things await if only by way of Japan and its gift of Godzilla, and its ghost traditions pushing into our own culture by way of films like Ringu (The Ring)and The Grudge and the world of Manga?
It’s All About Language and Culture and Horror Underfoot
While it’s hard to believe that modern music fans don’t always know the names of the bands and musicians that shaped the genre they are in, we of the Horror genre should not throw stones. We are doing the same thing right now, oblivious to our own genre history, crashing about like the proverbial bull in the china shop looking for a new mythos when we don’t even know the last one. We don’t learn our genre history, which squares so nicely with no one teaching it to us. We just keep clinging to the Lovecraft life raft, even if it happens to be the Titanic.
How long before we have a Paul McCartney-Kanye West moment of our own? You realize it is more likely to happen the smaller we make our universe, right?
We like to think that the Horror galaxy revolves around a white, Christian, English-speaking sun – because the little of “everything” we know tells us this…
Yet we could not be more wrong. All of our best tales descend from our Old World roots…and that must mean that out there somewhere is the motherlode of scary… It’s not, after all, like we haven’t drank from that well before – Horror was seeded in our early days of human history, and we have carried remnants of it out into our new and ever changing world with countless diasporas. Yet we tend to not use this personal version of Horror DNA. Instead we look askew at stories presented by “other” countries, often in “other” languages.
Up to this moment, we have hidden behind our world dominance. We have blatantly bragged that those who want to be heard need to speak the way we want to hear language. We don’t read foreign authors, we don’t like names or place names we cannot pronounce, cities we cannot picture, weather that does not mirror our own. We also don’t like the pools of secrecy we ourselves create when we push groups of humanity into the shadows of our entitlement and the people there speak words we don’t know the full meaning of. This is true whether such people on the margins speak Spanish or Black English or something from the Middle East.
Let’s just admit it: we are control freaks. We have a driving need to understand the nuance of every word we read, every meaning implied. And even though in the Horror genre, that can be an absolute necessity to “getting” it, there is still more to our aversion to works that come from “Other” places…
From International writers writing in other languages, to works written that speak of other traditions and cultural importances… we dislike the feeling that there are secrets being coded for certain readers. We feel that way about slang and inner city lingo as surely as we stink eye the immigrants speaking Spanish in the lunch room. Yet we need to get beyond our own Lovecraftian self-importance… we are missing out on some great storytelling – the kind that sends you to your own keyboard and pokes the Muse.
And alas, we are going to have to work for it…because language has its own cultural complications— the most obvious being when dealing with those which are “not-English.”
One of the biggest problems for international writers is being read by English Speakers. We are less likely to be bilingual than most other cultures, assured as we are that it is English that will continue to dominate everything that matters on the world stage.
And what this means is that we take our arrogances into the Literature we read… We not only fully expect to read things in our language, but we judge it differently even when it is delivered thusly. We underestimate what it means for a work to be translated.
In fact, we all too often misinterpret a writer’s talent by the fluency of the translator. However sometimes translators are “functional” but not “artistic.” Where all writers need translators with the eyes and ears and imaginations of poets, all too often we get novels that instead of reading like Dostoevsky, read like Google. This is due to cost, availability of a good translator, and having someone who can judge the finished product properly. Once one leaves their native language, this can be a real challenge – for writers and editors.
This is a real problem. The author needs a fluent translator to make their work accessible in other languages – languages they likely do not speak. And because they do not speak it, they cannot easily judge when a translator is fluent in both languages – fluent enough to tap into nuance and vocabulary yet still capture both those necessary interpretations as well as the voice of the author.
Translation matters, whether we are talking editing an inner city/urban work or a foreign one. And just as we ascribe proofreading errors to writers and their talent, we associate a translation with the quality of the original work if not the literal intelligence of the author. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth: nuance of the native tongue once lost results in a confusion of original intent, of the poetry of the prose and disagreement about what the original text meant.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You: a Ghost Story – an example of how translation should work FOR the work…
So we have to expect this kind of disparity to happen in translations of works that come from other language traditions. We have to be patient…flexible.
But we also have problems with writers who use what we have been institutionally guided to consider “bad” “incorrect” or “flawed” English…the most noticeable of which has been “Black, Regional, or Urban” English. In fact, we have the exact same problem in native speakers of English when it comes to interpreting and accepting slang, and cultural diversity within a work.
While sometimes we cannot connect to the story because we are not the intended audience, it is a fact that we tend to shy away from stories that involve language we are unable to “decode”…
Sometimes it is because we simply cannot pick up on the important nuances, the cues, the double entendre – the dog whistles. Never mind that this is because we are used to our own dog whistles…We feel shut out in the same way people from other cultures feel shut out when reading about ours. We simply have gotten used to the idea that being “top dog” in the publishing of Horror, it was “everyone else’s” job to understand the nuances of what we meant.
The shoe always pinches when it is on the other foot…But pinching is a sign that there is something alive in the shoe – that maybe the shoe is wrong, not the foot. We need to have the patience to unwrap the mysterious gift. Yet we have been institutionalized right out of the curiosity.
We bristle for example when non-Christian references are in the stories, unless we can give them the appropriate “Lovecraft spin” where exotic means “sinister” and “threatening”… And if the character does not look and act like us, we feel summarily “excluded”… as if “our” genre has been pirated…invaded. This is one reason why women wrote pulp and men wrote Literature back in the day…and why the inference remains a ghost on the battlefield of diversity in Horror today.
Because “today” we are excluding Horror from all over – including right under foot. We have been taught that reading should be easy and entertaining. We have forgotten that reading – especially Literature with its references to history and socio-economics and tyranny and justice– is work…
Publishers “get” this – that we are now not only lazy but expected to remain content to be lazy from here on – and clearly consider that this is far too complicated an issue to fix. So instead of new and exciting and different Horror, we have Horror from “Other” countries and cultures being farmed out to other genres or marketed as Literary statements – fodder for Critical Thinkers and Lit-lovers to decipher and ruminate upon. The face value of the story-telling is simply dismissed.
The very idea that Horror should include more than monsters is being banished while having the Bible of Lovecraft waved in our faces. Talk about contradiction. No wonder American Horror writers are all-too-often writing peculiarly ineffective and vacant fiction…
Banishing all works by “Others” which doesn’t carry a pre-approved Lovecraftian exploitation of fearing the same “Others” only re-confirms our suspicion that this makes these works not really Horror…Because Horror comes in only one color and one flavor: vanilla.
We further conjecture that all American Horror should be non-threatening and easy-to-digest, even when salaciously gory. And as the market for Horror tightens, the belief is becoming reinforced – making the whole idea that we all should be writing in some way like Lovecraft while being all pulpy and writing fast moving, two-dimensional action figure prose right into that very pair of cement shoes dragging the whole genre to the soggy bottom…
We have a tendency to decide that we are better off to reject works which require a bit of decoding.
We don’t want to think and we don’t want to go outside our comfort zone. But isn’t that exactly the price of admission? Isn’t that the very essence of Horror?
We have done this with African Americans for decades. We shrink from the use of Black English because we are just not sure what to do with it. Is it a dialect? Is it just “bad” English? Is it a regionalism? Slang?
And what about regionalism? Does a Southern character or a Southern accent make the Horror Southern Gothic and Literature because we don’t want to work to understand it in Horror? Why is Horror only Horror if the dialogue fits in a comic book balloon?
Why does it matter in Literature? How many Cockney accents have we navigated in English Literature because it was part of the story? Part of the setting? The time-and-place of historical value?
Experts are still in debate over it. And meanwhile editors everywhere – especially in traditional publishing – are at a loss as to how to edit such fiction. It is far easier to call “Black” and “Other” writing niche and reject the work, or pronounce it too burdened with Literary elements because most likely it will take African American and “Other”editors to edit such works submitted for publication…editors from the culture the story comes from in order to edit the right things out and clarify the things that need to stay in.
Decisions have to be made as to whether the language in the work is supposed to (pardon the pun) add “color” to the language, to orient characters and setting, but also as to whether or not it is also meant to exclude certain readers not in the intended audience, or to educate them into a different culture and viewpoint.
This is not as easy as it would seem. And this affects international and national works as quickly as it effects regional U.S. ones…
For one thing, we have been taught that language is either right or wrong in its execution. Yet we have so many regional subcultures in the English language alone we should be familiar with the fact that such “color” when added to Literature seats that work firmly in a time or place – it becomes part of setting and character. The only good excuse for exclusion on these grounds is when the work cannot be in some way “accessible” and its meaning appreciated by outsiders to a storytelling degree.
For example, when a work comes from another culture, country or language, the author or translator should allow for some “redundant” coaching… some of the native language should stay in the story – reminding the reader where it is coming from.
Example: “Mira,” said Pablo, “Look.” (Mira means “look.. And we learned something from the redundancy without losing the author’s proficiency of language.)
But there are also other cultural things that need explanation for new and “reverse-Other” readers.
Example: “When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname but refuses to use it, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke’s name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as ‘Are you listening to me?’” (From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake)
(Here we have learned about the character, her husband and her culture…yet presented in a way that does not offend the outsider or someone from that culture because it adds color to the prose.)
This is how good writing and proper editing is done. It is not the job of the reader to figure things out, but the job of the writer to draw us in – to make us want to learn more and to learn something by way of the story in spite of ourselves. And it is the job of the editor to help us all get there, especially in translation and even in our own language.
Those of us who like Horror already speak a second language – the language of our genre. Most of us who like Horror like it for the escapism – and the one predictable trope that never, ever changes: not the one about white creation myths, but the one that proves time and again, through ghost and monster and sheer coincidence that justice will prevail through the impersonal and savage law of nature because we are none of us innocent.
In the world of Horror where cross-pollination is key, we need different voices – ones whose different cultures or ways of speaking frame Horror in a new light, cast shadows in familiar yet peculiar angles…
Sometimes I think it must just feel like too much work to resolve in the eyes of traditional publishing – too much work for too much of a gamble…And that is exactly how we keep winding up with the same voices in Horror and Literature, all speaking the same way…It’s how we lost our DNA, our sense of direction and originality nested in our commonality.
So take a minute. Peruse the following list of writers from all over – including a few right here in these United States whose work was probably labelled a bit “niche.” You want new Horror? Original Horror?
Start here. And yes, there are Americans on it – either from or influenced by somewhere else, and in one case from traditions outside the mainstream but homegrown nonetheless…These are voices of different cultures…
Get your crucifixes… because these writers are the future of Horror – if we will only open our eyes and read.
Horror Authors Unseen – A List From Here to Everywhere Else
Asa Nomani (Japan) Now You’re One of Us
Otsuichi (Japan) Goth
Asamatsu Ken (Japan) Queen of K’n-Yan
Mariko Koike (Japan) The Graveyard Apartment
Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland) I Remember You
John Ajvide Lindquist (Sweden) Let the Right One In
Karin Tidbeck (Sweden) Amatka
Eden Royce (African American/Gullah and Southern Gothic influence) Spook Lights, Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings –YA coming Summer 2020
Tananarive Due (African American/Nigerian influence) My Soul To Keep
Violet Kupersmith (Vietnamese American) The Frangipani Hotel
Stephen Graham Jones (Native American) Mapping the Interior
David Bowles (Mexican American) Chupacabra Vengeance
Jeremias Gotthelf (Germany) The Black Spider
Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) You Should Have Left
Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) Hex
John Harwood (Australia) The Ghost Writer
Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan-Australian) Springtime, a Ghost Story
Simone St. James (Canada) The Haunting of Maddie Clare
Cherie Dimaline (Canadian First Nations) The Marrow Thieves
Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Canadian-Mexican) Certain Dark Things
Samuel Marolla (Italy) Black Tea and Other Tales
Giorgia de Maria (Italy) The Twenty Days of Turin
Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Fever Dream
Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/Mexican American) Pan’s Labyrinthe
Luis Abbadie (Mexico) El código secreto del Necronomicón(The Secret Code of the Neconomicon)
Julio Cortezar (Argentina) Tomada House
Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) Demonia (and Other Stories)
J.F. Gonzalez (Spanish American) Clickers
Carmen Maria Machado (Cuban American) Her Body and Other Parties
Andres Barba (Spain) Such Small Hands
Zhou Haohui (China) Valley of Terror
Han Kang (South Korea) The Vegetarian
Rene Depestre (Haiti) Hadriana in All My Dreams
Carolina Sanin (Columbia) The Children
Sadegh Hedayat (Iran) The Blind Owl
Otessa Mosfegh (Croatian Iranian) Eileen
Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (Egypt) Beyond Nature
Ania Ahlborn (Polish American) Within These Walls
Anna Starobinets (Russia) The Recrudescence of the Cold
Tony Vilgotsky (Russia) Eye of Satan (aka Warriors of the Church)
Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Russia) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales
Nuzo Onoh (Nigerian British) The Reluctant Dead
Amos Tutuola ( Nigeria) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts