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.

Advertisements

World View: the Secret Sauce of Horror Lit (What It Is & How to Get It)


In these increasingly hard times for Horror fans and Horror writers, one thing is clear: neither Horror nor Horror publication opportunities are what they used to be.

Having editors whose perspective has failed to move with the reality of the times, who consistently preach that cream always rises to the top and pronounce there are “plenty” of legitimate, Establishment-recognized venues looking for new talent, and who simultaneously bemoan the state of novice Horror writing without offering either professional coaching or a dream Craft Bible, doesn’t help. But it has managed to change a lot of the ways (un-traditionally published) Horror is now being written.

Contrary to Establishment insinuation, this is not a simple case of sour grapes.

Not only are Horror fans being “forced” to read more classics due to the smaller and smaller pool of Horror writers being published today, but so are Horror writers.

What are we to do with all of this Literary (and yes, I mean LITERARY) influence on our genre readers and writers?

And if we cannot look to our genre or higher education for the answers, who should we be looking to for craft guidance?

The answer: Literary Critics. And here is why.

Wv1

Great Writing Does Not Happen In a Vacuum

I honestly don’t know where the myth got started that real Writers spring from the womb all Literary.

When we look at all of the canons of writing, including the Western Canon of Literature – English Language Literature in particular – none of those writers were untrained: they were taught by their education, their reading examples, and their mentors.

When the education system focuses on things like Literature, what it means and how to appreciate it (appreciation not meaning exhibiting proper adoration, but actually interpreting, decoding, and understanding the actual words, concepts, and ideas therein) instead of passing standardized tests, that education feeds a young writer’s repertoire of subliminal storytelling; a blueprint forms in that student of writing’s mind – one they can imitate, elevate, or rebel from.

When a novice reads published writers accepted as Literary, they further drive Craft elements into their subconscious and learn about plot and character development. They also learn what has been done, and naturally grow toward the unexplored territory of telling the same story only better…thereby producing new fiction. They also learn where trends are, what they are, and how to exploit them or defy them.

When writers are gathered into communities, the unpublished mix freely with the published. Novices get feedback – not always friendly, and not always accurate – but feedback about their writing. Feedback is what shapes a writer; he or she can decide to change their writing, or to defiantly refuse to alter their own vision. They can become an Establishment Writer like a Dickens, or a future genre-changer like Poe…or Lovecraft. But having a sense of community and a place inside or outside of its approval is crucial. Having some level of mentoring is crucial.

Our biggest problem today in Horror is the same as it is for all fiction writing: we have (hopefully inadvertently) hung a price on every level of instruction.

A University degree in this country can easily top over $100,000 for an undergraduate degree – a fairly useless degree in the employment market without even more education. To get to a Masters and a Ph.D., is probably a lot closer to half a million dollars…all that work and expense just to be underpaid in almost every employment scenario.

To self-educate is also expensive. No one – not even universities – are endorsing writing instruction manuals. There is nothing but silence and literally millions of “expert” voices trying to explain how to become rich writing fiction – not how to write quality fiction that apparently no one wants to pay to publish. A writer can spend literally thousands of dollars trying to get to the bottom of how to become a good writer…and never, ever get the full picture. Meanwhile, reading classic authors fortunately has gotten increasingly cheaper…but unfortunately at the same time mimicking these writers’ styles is strongly condemned. Reading “new” Literary Greats is chancey…there are few who are all-but-certain candidates of future admission to the canon…and even for those a single work in hard copy book form can cost anywhere from $14.99 to $39.99.

Today, mentors are something novices are expected to pay for. Editors claim they are far too busy to indulge daring but otherwise incompetent or not-yet-competent writers; conferences and writers’ retreats are thousands of dollars; professional groups have publication requirements and steep membership fees. Clearly today a writer must pay to play. “Unknown” writers are seldom truly that. And to suggest a writer should be a social media king or queen and simultaneously a palm-greasing networking butterfly is flat out offensive.

No wonder there is a noticeable gap in published Horror and new, innovative, original Horror. Great writing does not happen in a vacuum. It is educated, mentored, nurtured, challenged, and overgrown to be carefully and artistically pruned.

 

Wv2

Meet the Literary Critic: Your New Mentor

For many Horror fans and writers, our exposure to Literary Critics in our genre is most often encapsulated in those over-expounded, publicly untidy bouts between established Critic Harold Bloom and our very own Stephen King. But we also read essays of rebellion and exposition by Poe and Lovecraft who in their times set about defending the genre from other Bloom-like entities who decreed our genre as some form of garbage. So why should we even remotely be interested in Critical opinions?

The answer is simple: because in Literature, it is the Literary Critic who decides what is admitted to the canon – any canon, including the as-yet-unestablished Horror Canon.

This does not mean Critics are right, or are always right. Critics are human, and subject to bias, preference, elitism, and dislike – just like the rest of us. Their work is also meant and designed to inspire academic DEBATE…to spur (for the rest of us) water-cooler conversations about Literature.

And sometimes, like the aforesaid Mr. Bloom, they are long in their careers and unsettled by change. The field of Literary Criticism itself is changing. It has been forced to.

Not only are younger people put off by the automatic exclusion of contemporary writers they have come to appreciate, but they are more significantly aware of the very clear gap between “Literary Classics” and Modern Literature. Why, they have been forced to address, are there so few Literary writers today? Where is all of our Modern Literature?

The answer has been deduced to be: we are indeed still writing it. But it is because of two issues that it cannot be recognized as such: one, a living writer cannot help but influence a Critic’s interpretation of their work when Literature must stand on its own – cleanly away from the author – to be properly Criticized; and two, the original Literary Critical Theories were designed to accommodate those early writings, therefore they seldom fit contemporary writing models which therefore need new theories with which to develop academic study.

So there is a New Literary Critic afoot.

Wv3

Noel Carroll

This does not mean we dismiss Critics like Mr. Bloom, who is tremendously qualified and therefore entitled to and should express his opinions, as long as they pertain to Literary Theory as he understands it. Indeed, there is much to be learned from such a thorough Critic, as long as we realize that once a Critic wades into personal attacks we need to disengage and separate the truly Literary Critical comment from the desperate, frustrated, personal one.

Wv4

Harold Bloom

New Literary Criticism is, alas, however…new.

This is good and bad. Bad because we have few Critics in our genre. Good because there are plenty of English majors out there wondering what to do with their degrees…some of whom are Horror fans and would therefore have our best interests at heart in contributing to the development of Theories with which to analyze, discuss and debate our genre works.

That’s right: Literary Criticism is horribly academic. Dull, even. But interesting. Very, very interesting.

Wv6

S.T. Joshi

And right now, still at the forefront of our genre, are three Literary Critics of merit: S.T. Joshi, China Mieville, and Noel Carroll. Joshi once wrote in our genre. Mieville still writes – although he is categorized as fantasy/dark fantasy. Carroll is an academic, a Professor of Philosophy and student of film and art.

These three have – by simple timing (by being first) – become major players in how our future Literary Critics will look at our work in the Horror genre. And it is through their commentary – which often builds on those Poe and Lovecraft essays – which can offer us as writers and readers of Horror a much better understanding of everything from the classics in our genre to Craft.

This is important. In fact, right now, it is crucial.

Wv7

China Mieville

The Literary Critic is not charging us for the privilege of understanding how Literature works in our genre. In fact, the Literary Critic is desperate for us to understand…to grasp and start applying the essential Secret Sauce that makes Literature LITERATURE….your individual, unique, secret World View.

 Wv8

http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/686470-average-american-worldview.html

World View: Finding It & Using It

Believe it or not, you already have one.

If you ever say anything predicated with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” then you are guilty of having a World View. It may not yet be worldly, it may not be fully formed or fully informed. But if you have an opinion, then you have the roots.

Understanding how to employ World View is another matter. So we have to go back to the Critic for more information.

And all we have to do is read. And think. We are going to have to admit we need to surrender some quality time to studying Literary Critical essays…maybe even take a class if we can.

And then we need to re-read the works we love and the works they are predicting are Literary…see the similarities, the disagreements, the points at which we diverge. Because understanding Literature and Literary Critics means we have to be willing to work. But we also have to be willing to look at art naked – even our own art – to see the clockworks… the bones stripped of flesh. We have to see writing as mechanically assembled bits. We must stop seeing it as magic.

Oh, how we as writers hate that…

But in fairness, we have to. We do already dismantle the magic in fact, when we sit down to edit, to rewrite…to improve, to usurp the Muse. Why not do so using the Critic’s eyes? To see if we could go deeper? Twist the knife? Unearth the body that fertilized the plot in the first place?

The answer has historically been: because we don’t get it. And what the heck is a World View got to do with it?

Critic S.T. Joshi (whose professional opinion also places the Weird as separate and a possible fore-runner of Modern Horror) states it best in his discussion of Modern Weird fiction and its failures: “…it seems as if the whole approach to weird fiction today is flawed in its very conception. The purpose of most modern weird writing seems to be merely to frighten. This is an inevitable result of the elimination of a philosophical basis [my emphasis] for the weird: all that is left (if, indeed, anything is left) is the emotion of Horror…” (Joshi 2)

Now, I know what you’re already thinking…. isn’t that the goal? Isn’t that the point?

And the answer is no. Horror has too long been misinterpreted as having the one and only goal of scaring or unsettling the reader or moviegoer. But that is supposed to be the side-effect… the cherry on top. Because the real Horror is what spawns the emotion… what the story is really about.

Again, I hear you. It is about monsters. And the monsters scare us. Tah-dah!

But this is wrong. This is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Continues Joshi, “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify. This is to say that the primary purpose of weird fiction should not be to send a tingle up one’s spine….if weird fiction” (and therefore Horror) “is to be a legitimate literary mode, it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not and its principal means of doing so is the utilization of the supernatural as a metaphor [my emphasis] for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life. Hence the need for a world view that structures and defines the use of the weird in literature. Mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, however artfully accomplished.” (Joshi 2)

Did your writing life just flash in front of your eyes?

Good. Then there is hope we can extricate ourselves from writing like everyone else and starting to learn to write like only we can.

World view, you see, is quite personal.

But how do we see it? Especially if we are young, how do we know we even have one? If we are old, how do we know it is even relevant anymore?

If you are American, you can thank our current political circus for clearing all of this right up.

Whether you are for or against the one in the White House, chances are your world view is wearing plaid and day-glo colors. You know how you feel – passionately – about absolutely every utterance, every piece of legislation coming out of Washington. This is your World View. On drugs.

Do you want to build a wall, or rip it down with your bare hands? Do you believe immigration makes America stronger or weaker? Is religious diversity healthy or threatening? Should only English-speakers enter this country, or should we care about learning and preserving other languages? What about women’s reproductive rights? Climate change? Gun control? Voting rights? Civil rights? The definition of Civil Rights? Conformity? Rebellion? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? Peace? War?

How you feel about – well – every issue this administration is hell-bent on reshaping or dictating how you should feel about – tells you what your World View is.

If only we could bottle it….But then, maybe we already have. In Lovecraft.

Says Noel Carroll: “It is clear that literary supernatural horror – which, by means of the morbidly unnatural (the repulsive), evokes [Lovecraft’s] cosmic fear – is attractive because this kind of awe responds to or restores some sort of primordial or instinctual human intuition about the world… The relation of the repulsive in horror to this sense of awe is that the morbidly unnatural is what it takes to trigger it. So we seek the morbidly unnatural in literature in order to experience awe, a cosmic fear with a visionary dimension that corresponds to instinctual, human views of the universe…Lovecraft appears to think that supernatural literature affords something like religious experience as well as a corresponding reaction against some kind of desiccating, positivist world view.” (Carroll 163)

If you look at what is being published today and come away feeling disappointed, unfulfilled and even irritated…If you just can’t keep yourself from rereading the Classics in Horror, chances are you already understand something of what Joshi and Carroll are saying…You just didn’t know you did.

We have –all of us – had our understanding of what Literature does deformed by what is now called “success.”

Ask any writer what “success” means and he or she will most likely say “earning a living with my writing”…. But what they mean is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Because that is what has been marketed as success: wealth… the power to dictate what you write and when.

Yet look at our Critically-besieged Mr. King.

Stephen King

Do you really think he wants to keep writing the same thing over and over? Look at the many times he has tried to break out of the constricting mold we have sentenced him to: Delores Claiborne, Full Dark, No Stars, Rose Madder, Lisey’s Story, The Green Mile, Joyland… All of these may ultimately score him the Literary recognition his mainstream Horror has been denied… and yet we want and demand more Christine, The Shining, Carrie, Pet Cemetery… And because those are the moneymakers, so do the publishers. So he keeps churning them out for our pleasure (and we do thank him, but at what cost to his personal ambitions?)

Likewise, the sheer numbers of his sales potential, peripheral options, merchandising opportunities… these are dangled in front of novices and labeled “success”…

What we have to be asking, is “is it really?”

If Lovecraft had been born in today’s environment, he would likely have kept his mythos… but he would not be placed in front of us as a “success.” Lovecraft would have none of the commercial criticism or demand that we have laid on King; he himself was too…weird. He avowed repeatedly that he did not desire “success,” that he would not change what or how he wrote to please anyone other than his own muses.

And look what we inherited.

This is the Critic’s point. This is Joshi’s point.

If a writer writes for anything other than the art of communicating a real concept about the universe and human life…if we don’t touch depths of human significance, then we are flirting with being hacks. We are prostituting our talents.

While we are all aware of the need to pay our bills, we must (daily) decide if what we write and the way we write it is important enough to keep it sacrosanct… to choose to go unpublished if the alternative means writing more fiction that has no soul…that is in Joshi’s words…”lifeless.”(3)

How to do this is another argument. Therefore, it will be my next post.

But the current question, the question of this post, is should we? Should we start pushing our World View into the Muse?

Should we seriously consider what the Literary Critics say? Study their comments? Consider if they might be in fact, right?

I strongly suspect they are.

There is a whole boatload of soulless fiction out there, convincing publishers that good Horror is not selling because it is not being written…maybe because the genre is all used up, or that no one buys new Horror because it is “somehow” inadequate and substandard despite all the editorial begging.

And the truly disturbing thing is that they are using this very set of speculations to reduce the publication of Horror titles…to reject new Horror writers.

The Literary Critic is telling us why.

The Literary Critic is telling us what is wrong and what must be fixed if Modern Horror – especially Modern American Horror is to ever regain its former popularity, to rise to the level of Real Literature… To grow from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft. To grow the genre…

And what Horrifies me most…is the thought that I am still writing it myself, that I have not learned – mastered – the Craft of infusing my own words with my own passionate beliefs. I realize that my own interpretation of how to write good Horror has been corrupted by the very system that claims it wants better.

So where do we begin?

Perhaps with Joshi, one of the world’s foremost experts on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

He says about the few success he sees in modern weird writing: “It can be seen that these novels have virtually nothing in common with each other, either in theme or in style or in execution; it is simply that in each instance the author [my emphasis] has conceived of a scenario that is sufficiently complex and sufficiently supernatural in its essence such that a novel is required for its exposition.” (Joshi 10)

So where do we begin? With World View — not preaching it, but showing it.

We begin with ourselves. We begin with our passions. We begin with finding ways to say what we really think about the world. This means we have some thinking to do, to discover what we truly believe and what is truly true. We have skills to hone as we set those rampaging emotions loose upon the page as we try to say what we mean and mean what we say. But we have to begin. And where we begin is shockingly easy.

We begin with the monsters. We begin with US.

References

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, c1990.

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

Good, Evil & Supernatural Horror: Does What You Believe Color Your Fiction?


I once read an essay (now long lost) that suggested Catholic Horror writers wrote better Horror…

I don’t remember the argument or the examples, but the question has stayed with me well past my own conversion to Catholicism. I deny, of course, that I converted for the Horror. But it is fun to say. And it also means this is a question that has dogged my reading and writing career.

Is it true? Do Catholics write better Horror? And more importantly, does what you believe affect not only choices you make in writing Horror, but the quality of the stories you tell?

Evil1

The Question of Faith

One of the most interesting facets of Horror fiction is that it perpetually asks: what is the relevance of faith?

Modern characters are often nonreligious, agnostic or atheistic, and are left defenseless to confront the evils of the world – up to and including the demonic – all without the slightest understanding of the immensity of the situation. This is a blessing to Hollywood, which gets to explore all manner of special effects on the way to the protagonist’s discovery that whatever it is, it is directly from Hell, and there is no cure for the evil coming for them…

And it makes things easier for the writer, who doesn’t have to worry about knowing obscure and arcane facts, who can “learn” right along with their characters, and who can feel equally “safe” in making up solutions that eliminate or “postpone” the problem – even if it means passing the evil onto someone else – preferably a minor antagonist who “deserves” it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have all manner of “reality” ghostbusting television shows to thank for replacing that void which not only religion, but folk and fairy lore used to occupy. We can refer or defer to them as the “authority” on how supernatural things happen, and even lessen the importance of why.

We are innocent, after all – all of us. We never, ever deserve the evil that roams the world as punisher.

But isn’t this delivery of supernatural fiction from a position of ignorance the reason modern Horror is more two dimensional than ever? Do we need a belief system in order to “dress” the details of a real religious crisis?

Is the problem that we no longer believe in a real religious crisis?

I have wondered about this for a long time – especially since I left my own Protestant church with a crisis of faith about the same time that a good deal of mainstream America was doing the same – the 1970’s. And one has only to ask “what are the main Protestant denominations today?” to see what the national restructuring of faith resulted in – a loss of consistency, a loss of definable doctrine greater than sola scriptura – or God’s Word alone.

Yet the Catholic Church was not immune from parishioner defection.

Everyone, it seemed, was having a crisis of faith – not only at the time when science and technology was again on the rise – but at the time when a U.S. President could be assassinated, when a Civil Rights leader could be murdered in the light of day, when our own government was caught in lies that went back centuries, and the first cracks in the American Dream became visible.

Pair that with the teenage years of the Baby Boom generation, and there was a whole lot of questioning going on. And churches of all faiths were caught unaware and reacted with indignant shock.

Evil 2

But this never meant we stopped craving religion, or some proof of it.

And for that proof, we cast our gaze to the very thing that robbed us of our faith: evil…the kind of evil that seems in its tenacity and freedom from judgment to run rampant in the world, savaging humanity without an apparent comment from God.

Why is God silent, if indeed he is there?

The question has haunted generations of agnostics who want more, of atheists who require tangible proof to believe more, and of the faithful who kneel in churches in the face of tragic events. And where Literature has long explored the theme, Horror has reveled in it.

Clearly humanity needs an answer, if not God Himself. We would not ponder and debate the question of His existence if we did not need Him in the most primal way – ask any psychologist, sociologist, or priest.

Faith is the scab over the old wound that never heals, the one we pick at, and point at, and deride others about for choosing faith, or choosing no faith, or the wrong faith.

Of course in our genre, we get to take matters of religion to the extremes. But we do so because the question of faith is that important to us – whether as witnesses to human arrogance, or as victims of those seeming above any laws. Clearly we need to know there is judgment of some sort… and if we can’t get God to respond, we will turn to the Devil.

Evil3

The Devil as Default

We have long sought out evil in an attempt to flush out God.

It is the most basic attempt to tease God out of Heaven, to prove His existence to us, and more importantly, to prove our worthiness, our special place in His universe.

But we have also done so by placing evil in the laboratory and under the microscope in the hope of understanding ourselves – if not excusing ourselves.

Says Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c2002): “Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory and acceptable in practice” (Neiman 44).

Knowing how to recognize evil might offer us the opportunity to eradicate it, to give us hints on how to avoid its demonic gaze. So we attempt to define it by assigning categories of human behavior to it.

The irony is not lost on Horror writers, who often then weave the demonic right back into humanity. Who’s the Devil here? And why isn’t Satan the perfect vehicle for all of our troubles?

The answer is: because if we believe in the Devil, we are also wont to believe in God. And today, that equates for many to simple superstition.

But then Horror asks (when it is really good Horror)… what if religion is real?

As though such a question represents the purist, the most preachy among us, bad or weak Horror has therefore grabbed onto the Devil by his horns and thrust him into every subgenre and every trope sacred to our genre as though to ward off any further questions.

Today it is never just a witch, but the Devil’s personal favorite. It is never just a ghost but a demon from the Devil’s right hand. It is never just a werewolf but a personal brush with a hound from Hell. It is never just a mass murderer but one possessed. It is never just a vampire, but one bewitched by the witch who is the Devil’s personal favorite… and so it goes… ad nauseum.

Today, evil just IS…

We have no real relation to it, other than to be an innocent victim of it.

Whether we are trying to explain a terrorist act or a weak fiction plot, it is just easier to drag the Devil into it. It gives us permission to become hapless victims and righteous soldiers. Says Neiman, “Belief in Providence presumes that we are innocent long after we’ve begun to look very suspicious.” (199)

We have completely missed the message of evil.

Evil4

The Exorcist and the Battle of Good and Evil

Of course, Horror took up the challenge. And the reasons for the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not only why we have some pretty awesomely scary Horror to look back on today, but it is also why modern writers stay away from religious questions almost entirely in contemporary Horror fiction.

Blatty, it appeared, went just a little bit too far… not in his monster –the Devil was great in this on (and was even able to send his right hand demon for one of the first times in modern Horror fiction and as a result it was unique, and a worthy surprise for Horror audiences and lapsed Christians everywhere) – but because Blatty made the mistake of not letting the story speak for itself.

As Horror Critic S.T. Joshi says, “the sole function of his writing is to reconcile us to Catholicism…” (Joshi 61)

Blatty framed his characters in the exact moment of time in which we were living: many Americans in 1971 were no longer members of any church, even when we considered ourselves to be Christian. A growing segment of the population were self-identifying as agnostic, and many others of us were flirting with atheism while embracing our pseudo-enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs of our parents who we were coming to see as parochial and even ignorant. To a Catholic writer like Blatty, something needed to be done to herd us all back to the fold… to revisit the issue and necessity of faith.

While it is not so obvious in the film, the book reveals more of his intent… seeming “preachy” while it attempts to take a skeptical, modern reader and explain how true evil has no scientific explanation, and no solution other than what God can provide through established religion and faith. Says Joshi, “Blatty so insistently pushes his theology in our faces” that it virtually bankrupts any aesthetic value of his work (Joshi 61).

This is a consequence of Blatty’s attempt to demonstrate – much to many readers’ chagrin – that the atheistic mother of the possessed child has no choice but to exhaust all of the “logical” and “scientific” explanations for possession until the character must in abject desperation concede that only God and her reclaimed faith can save her child.

This is exactly where we all were with religion: we did it if we did it once a week, and the rest of the time we were duly enlightened.

In the book, there is the usual parade of psychiatrists, medical doctors, medications and therapies which because of our modern resistance to the metaphysical, must be explored in order to prove their irrelevance to the supernatural problem. We must be made to see ourselves in our faithless world, too busy and too oblivious to consider the truth that humanity is the unwavering target of evil. And indeed, the reader goes on this very tedious journey with her.

Blatty’s purpose, of course, is to show that true religious events are matters of faith – not science.

And to some degree, he succeeded. The message was not lost on many Catholics. And the possibility of demonic possession delivered upon an innocent child led many Protestants to rethink their baptism-as-lifetime-guarantee position. But it did not drive us all back into the pews. Instead, it ushered in the New Age and a re-visitation of spiritualism and tinkering with the arcane.

It also led to a certain reluctance among Horror writers to write anything which would label them as “preachy.” And so began the mad dash to found footage and staring for hours at empty rooms in the hopes of seeing a swinging chandelier or a door closing ever so slowly… the Devil became the default explanation for everything that could go wrong in a Horror novel.

But ironically, we seem to prefer that the Devil cannot be defeated…

We just don’t seem to want to believe in a God who makes us discover faith in a room full of demons.

We don’t want to bring in Christianity.

We don’t want anything that reeks of superstition to taint our big boy Rambo image, so we feign ignorance of religion and make the secret rites of the Catholic Church a rental option.

Fix and forget it. That’s our modern motto.

Never mind that our robotic obsession with living in a bubble might be abnormal, and the battle between good and evil, the normal. That would be too scary….and preachy.

It seems sad to me that we have ignored the greater message which does persist behind Blatty’s desire for a mass return to faith: that some things are just beyond our control because maybe-just-maybe we are not the center of the universe after all.

Yet we struggle with the concept of anyone – God or exorcist or deliverance minister – being the final answer to our problems. We are, it seems, too great a set of control freaks to let that be a default in our fiction. We’d rather just have the demon who cannot be completely banished, the mystery we cannot completely uncover. So we hide behind extinct or obscure cultures, and – if all else fails – we make things up.

This is true for Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet… do we write differently because of our own intimate beliefs?

Evil5

Catholics, Protestants, and Atheists… Oh My!

Horror has always consisted of a diverse field of writers.

With regard to that essay I referenced at the beginning, I have not found one religious (or nonreligious) persuasion to be better or more prolific than another.

Do I think a belief system or lack of one influences writers of Horror? Definitely yes: whether we write to obscure or promote our own beliefs, or in fear of having those beliefs ridiculed or to spite our parents or Critics, or because we do not believe in one religion or in perhaps even in God, religion cannot help but impose its shadow upon our genre.

Do I think it makes us better or worse as writers?

I think the temptation to overreach is there, whether a writer subconsciously mocks or feels mocked or anticipates mockery. Religion must be entered into “just so” in our genre, lest it spoil the tale. As a result, our very personal position on religion or lack of it can affect our work for better or worse.

But I don’t think it is the determiner of our fates as Horror writers…although perhaps it will contribute something to style.

For example, in Horror, we have the Reformation to thank for separating the ways Protestants and Catholics look at the supernatural, starting with ghosts. Says Gillian Bennett in an introduction to the Seventeenth Century chapter of her book The Best 100 British Ghost Stories:

“Catholics and Protestants agreed that the souls of bad people would not be allowed to escape from Hell and the souls of good people would not wish to leave Heaven. The only place restless spirits could be coming from was therefore Purgatory, which was conceived of as a sort of holding pen where souls could be purged of sin. It followed that if there was no Purgatory, there could be no ghosts; but if ghosts could be proved to exist, the existence Purgatory was confirmed.” (Bennett 15)

Therefore Catholics believed in ghosts, Protestants did not. Toss in the modern reluctance to consider ghosts to be anything other than demons imitating loved ones to gain access to the soul, and we lose Catholics as well…but only publicly.

In private, we all ponder the existence of ghosts, and even play at “busting” them.

Yet our religious training in where we place them and whether they are or ever were human changes the way we write ghosts and demons and influences the belief of whether or not they can or should be driven to Hell…right along with who has the religious authority to do the driving…

So yes, our religious beliefs can and do affect how we tell a tale.

As an observer, I also believe Catholics are wont to write “deeper” in the area of religious problems like death and grief, ghosts and possession. I think the possibilities that await those who stray too far from God hold a certain terror for Catholics that Protestants do not anticipate or seem willing to entertain, and maybe that has to do with our early religious upbringings. But I think Protestants write better modern characters and situational Horror. And I think atheists write better Weird and subversive monsters than any of us.

Indeed, most of Weird fiction’s prominent and founding writers have been atheists according to Joshi. And many supernatural/spectral writers are Catholic. And of course many of todays’ giants are Protestants. So while religion or lack of it is most certainly an influence, it is not an indicator of success or failure – only a comfort zone for the kind of monsters we choose to write.

Most of us writing in Horror have lapsed in our faith a time or two, whether we were able to translate our own mystic fears and worldviews into our fiction or not, whether we eventually abandoned it altogether or not. It is the nature of the Horror genre that we question reality and our place in it. So it is also natural that we question surreality and its place in our world, that we poke at boundaries and wonder about it if something dares poke back.

Horror is not and should not be about driving the masses back into the arms of a loving God or into experimenting with the supernatural or declaring ourselves proudly above religion entirely. But it is about allowing ourselves the right to believe… even if it is only long enough to drive a demon out of this world, or to experience the what if of the moment.

It is about questioning, and sometimes…discovery – even discoveries we didn’t want to make and don’t know what to do about.

Not because Catholics or Protestants or atheists might write better Horror fiction, but because if the monstrous unseen really is out there, then the monstrous human is not the worst thing to worry about. And whether religion is superstition or not, some of us would rather not contemplate a world where we are completely, excruciatingly alone.

After all, there would be no one left to read our work…

Evil6

References

Bennett, Gillian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

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

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternate History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c2002.

 

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


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

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

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

So let the digging and defining begin…

Sub1

Defining Weird Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Sub2

H.P. Lovecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 sub3

S.T. Joshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sub4

China Mieville

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

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

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

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

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

 sub5

The VanderMeers

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

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

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

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

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

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

sub6

The Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t that be weird?

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

There had to be. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovecraft3

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

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

Joshi1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We thought it was us.

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

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

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

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

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

Mieville 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

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

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

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

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

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Terror (and When They Aren’t)


For those who would read our genre because they were seduced by the emotionally rich words “tales of terror” in a title, there has been an unfortunate turn of events. The word “terror” in the Horror genre has joined a pantheon of keywords that seem to have lost their spark, their ability to sizzle and frighten. We loyally buy books labelled “tales of terror” only to come away feeling misled, cheated, confused.

Did we not understand what was intended?

I have long asked myself why old works are still potent even today, and new works are simply flat and featureless. What has changed in the geography of our prose? If being modern and sophisticated does not neutralize stories of the past, then we are surely doing something different now. But what?

Something has clearly changed. Something wicked this way comes. And it is looking like fans of the Horror genre are now caught between two new influences on the marketing of our fiction that may explain some of it: one is the emergence of the Literary Critic rummaging about in our stuff; the other is the misdirection of our writers into popular fiction – the belief from the inside out that genre is no longer good enough

Tales1

The Monstrous Assumptions of the Under-Published

Let’s face it. Most of us do not fully grasp the full array of conventions and subgenres available to us. And the reason is that unlike the more intimate times of Lovecraft and Poe, despite the internet and all the talk of global associations, Horror writers seldom know much about each other. In those earlier times there were far more editors to guide us, far more publications to be rejected from, and far more authors willing to comment on each other’s contributions to the genre. In other words, there was more – if not better – communication in the genre.

Today we operate more in the dark where constructive criticism is concerned. And we are alone in there with an enormous collection of how-to magazines and books…all of which offer solutions like our Great Aunt Margie’s Secret Family Recipe which (conveniently) seems to leave at least one important ingredient out. We have less formal education about Literature, about Literary Criticism, about elements of craft in creative writing, and seriously less education about the specifics and histories of different genres.

Speculative fiction is out on the fringe – not because it is unloved – but because when the Arts are under fire, it is the extremities that suffer most from amputation.

This means that novice writers in the genre are feeling their way along, not only wondering if they are being rejected for failures in mechanical mastery, but trying to predict what publishers are thinking and desiring…and those messages are typically mixed.

The rumor that genre is defunct and all writing is going popular and somewhat Literary is pure poison, injected directly into our genre roots. Literature never spawns from genre; genre spawns from Literature – sometimes carrying just enough Literary mastery that it remains Literature as well. Contemporary Literary writing that aims to sneak genre in typically fails because it satisfies neither potential audience. So why are we being encouraged to play at this style?

It may well have to do with the influence of the MFA and its multitude of graduates. It may have to do with publishers listening to rumors or trying to manipulate the market and sales. It may have to do with the whining of Critics who want a more pasteurized genre. But there are also new Critics who – like many of us – just want better genre.

So let us coalesce… Let us embrace our differences from the Lit crowd without excusing bad writing. Let’s recreate our writing groups, our Amateur Press Associations, our newsletters, our inner circle. And someday, we will get our publishing mojo back…once the internet exhausts its efforts to orchestrate our demise and discovers business is just no fun without us.

But let us do so wisely. Professionally. Educated about our own past and about Critical influences – intentional or accidentally imposed.

Because out there in the darkness stalks the New Literary Critic. And all of the free-for-all efforts, the gyrations, the morphing of shapes is leading to a bastardization of our genre which is being force fed to us as genre….

Take modern tales of terror.

Sometimes they are. And sometimes they aren’t.

Tales 2

 Tales of Terror: What They Are When They Aren’t

The word “terror” today occupies a crowded space in our minds, and this is an unwelcome complication. For genre writers, it is a word corrupted and hijacked by modern events, twisted into political tools that steer our imaginations away from the Literary term that punctuates the Horror fan’s earliest adventures into classic works. Because believe it or not, to some degree the term has always been Literary; it is only that the literary interpretation has also begun to change.

Readers uneducated in our genre might automatically assume a book with “terror” in the title has international influences. But the word “terror” in the Horror genre is a an old term, previously attached to ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, to “strange” tales and tales of the “unknown” and “suspense.” It blossomed under the umbrella of pulp, flirted briefly with the Weird, and then slipped into that netherworld of fan-led connotation.

In other words, the word “terror” occupied a nebulous and changing place in our minds while we attempted to define our own genre both from the reading and the writing perspectives.  Until certain authors of canon-worthy fame began to see a need for categorization in our genre… and they raced ahead of any would-be Critics to establish some standards.

Both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft knew enough about Literature and Literary Criticism to understand that in order to capture the attention of Critics, there would have to be some standards in our genre, and if we ourselves could not identify those standards, then they probably weren’t there. So they set about through various essays trying to eke out a semblance of structure to the genre – which included naming the genre, and defining its subgenres and all relevant conventions.

The discussion continues to evolve – even today – with a good many very smart people reluctant to keep the name “Horror” as the main term for all cascading genre nomenclature.

Yet if our genre is to gain respectability and regain marketable tags that help genre readers find their authors, then the discussion must not only be had, but terms and definitions must be decided upon once and for all.

Lost in the translation is the modern Horror reader, awash in terms we all thought meant more or less the same things.

For all those years the word “terror” was ours to toy with. And toy we did. At no time did we assume it to be more than just an adjective meant to allude to a certain level of emotional disturbance to be harvested from the prose. We did not suspect it was morphing into a category that should have clear Literary delineations other than it having the capacity to scare and unsettle us. In fact, we still do not suspect anything… as evidenced by our own baffled expressions after reading “modern” tales of terror.

Typically, we find ourselves on the opposite side of reviews with the Critics. But if we dig deeper into Literary Criticism, we can understand how and why that is.

For one thing, it is perhaps a sad state of the Critic that being “scared” in our genre is of secondary – or even tertiary importance. In a broad and enlightening discussion on Weird fiction, Critic S.T. Joshi points out an important viewpoint of the Critic for our genre: “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify… [and] mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, no matter how artfully accomplished” (Joshi, Modern 2).

This means that our interests are sometimes diametrically opposed. Critics by and large – although passionate folk – are not typically emotional; they don’t read for the thrill – they read for the technical mastery behind the thrill. So what a Critic will call a “tale of terror” is far and away a different animal that what we in the genre want to call a tale of terror.

Critic S.T. Joshi, makes his Critical point this way: “The horror story (whether supernatural or not) somewhat untidily encompasses those works that focus on the emotion of fear, largely to the exhaustion or minimization of elements, emotions, or motifs – specifically a broad portrayal of character or of those human relations where fear of terror does not play a role [my emphasis]” (Joshi, Unutterable Gilgamesh to the end of the 19th Century, 3).

So when a Critic calls a tale a tale of “terror,” he or she is likely not calling it a Horror tale that the Horror fan expects to read. But if the publisher categorizes the collection of such tales as Horror, the miscommunication has begun: the Critic may adore it, and the Horror fan may sit all wrinkle-browed and frustrated. In just such a case as this, the Critical argument that not all in our genre is Horror appears to have traction, if not its own fan base.

Tales3

It’s also why we so often disagree with Critics – we are reading for entertainment and love something more when we discover something deeper sleeps under the prose. Critics, however, toss away the chills and thrills like they were old clothes, rummaging about our stories for what they savor – that something “more” that Literature contains by its own definition.  In the case of “terror” – and the Horror genre as a whole – that often includes unearthing a little realism and postmodernism in the works.

Terms like these typically mean a lot less obvious genre terror is going to go on. It means the work in question is doing Literary things, playing with prose, and embracing the secrets of being human and cloaking world view and statements about ourselves and our societies.

Remember that what is Literary is not necessarily Literature, but containing elements of Literature. Literature must meet a long list of Critical criteria that only academics study and fully appreciate, and which most often happen by happy accident in the bulk of writing. So while we may have many stories in our genre – including a handful of writers who are considered by many to be “Literary” – neither they nor their works automatically or even often ascend that ladder to those ebony towers of Literature.

But in order to be considered Literature there must be a nice, clinical list of criteria (see any word that looks like “critic” in there?) that is established and agreed upon by the whole school of Literary Criticism. This takes time, Critics, and debate. But it also takes a body of literature (small “L”) from which to deduce these criteria.

And believe it or not, the examination of that literature body and debate of its points has been going on for some time… sometimes by Critics themselves who do not like our genre…and sometimes by writers within it, or even new Critics who have decided to tackle our genre for the purposes of opening up the genre for Literary Criticism.

This is big, you know. HUGE.

But it means that things are changing in our genre, words are being confiscated for Literary Use. Terms are being established. Categories.

It is the job of the Literary Critic to establish categories in fiction.

It also means that when you pick up a book with “tales of terror” in the subtitle, it might well depend on who wrote them as well as what’s actually in them as to whether or not you wind up properly terrified or the Critics think you should have been.

An example is Joyce Carol Oates’ latest title – categorized as Horror fiction – The Doll-master and Other Tales of Terror. They are, and they aren’t. They are mildly disturbing, slightly unsettling. But they say more about humanity than actual emotional terror. The tales are not spine-tingling. They are not going to keep readers awake nights. But they will provoke thought and linger a bit longer in the mind than anticipated.  In other words, they do what Literary Critics want our genre to do, while forgetting what genre fans want it to do.

Tales4

For those who might not know, Oates is the Critical darling of our genre. And she is clearly a master of the craft of writing. But many Horror fans don’t really know her work, and most who know her work do not think of her as a Horror writer…She is clearly a Literary writer who uses supernatural elements to color her prose a lovely shade of disturbing.

And the truth of that is confounding.

A self-professed writer of “Gothic” fiction, Oates herself describes such work as designed to be “willing to confront mankind’s – and nature’s – darkest secrets” (Oates 6). This means that realism is at work in her writing – Literary elements over speculative ones.

And what is realism? According to Nick Mamatas in his essay “Depth of Field: Horror and Literary Fiction” (On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association), “Realism refers both to a set of techniques that simply render reality accurately, and to a genre of fiction that examines the psychology of characters existing in everyday life” with plots that utilize “intense, even minute descriptions of ‘how we live now’…”(114).

In other words, there is not the natural and familiar rhythm of genre fiction to stir the emotions. “Terror” comes at us in a completely different way with completely different results. Continues Mamatas, “’Where’s the payoff?’ you can hear the Horror fan crying out, and the answer is that there isn’t one, and that is what leads to the horror of the novel” (114).

While this sounds like a recipe for fan disappointment, it is part of the recipe for Critical interest. Here a writer must decide how to tell the story, and if that telling serves both the story and the writer’s own expectation of it.

This does not mean that all Critics like this type of tale when considering the genre. Says S. T. Joshi of Oates’ work in the genre, “in all humility, a number of the tales in Haunted and other Oates collections would never have been published were it not for their author’s celebrity” and that “Oates is manifestly more interested in human relationships than in supernatural phenomena, and oftentimes the latter serve merely as symbols or reflections of the former… “ (Joshi, Unutterable 20th and 21st centuries , 683-4).

Therefore, even for some Critics the trade-off of mechanics and mastery is not worth the dilution of too many genre standards – especially to the point that a tale runs the risk of leaving the genre entirely. This should give us hope…

But for now, all of us are too-frequently baffled by words we used to understand – readers and writers alike.  Words are our tools to communicate to readers and publishers what we are attempting to do in the genre. But definitions are now fluid. Words are showing up in titles, blurbs and book covers that don’t mean what we thought they meant.

And in just such a world, the growing problem in our genre is not living up to our own vocabulary… and part of that problem is a vocabulary that is under revision, dividing words we use to describe what we read and want to read into a Literary term for which we as readers in the genre have lost the agreed-upon definition.

So what does this mean for the genre fan, or the writer marketing their work? It means that we all need to be aware that terms are changing, being applied and misapplied. Here again we need a unified and authoritative voice, an executive decision made – but not made without due discourse. One of the best ways to finalize such a process is through Literary Criticism and the discussions it rightfully raises.

When tales of terror are not, we need to look at why they were called that to see if it is we who misunderstand the game…and if it is a matter of Critic versus Genre, maybe we all need to get on the same page…for the readers’ sake.

“Terror” is not what others make it. “Terror” may not be pirated for exclusive use. Because “terror” is one of those cousins of fear that made the Horror genre what it is, and it is ours by birthright. “Terror” is a genre term that should not be taken lightly when attaching catchy tag-lines onto book titles, or tucked between the flowery praise of a review or recommendation because “terror” occupies a unique place in our pantheon of primal responses to our world – real or imagined. And when we see it attached to story, it needs to mean something.

Terror—according to Hollywood Horror legend Boris Karloff – is “rooted in cosmic fear of the unknown. It is the more dreadful experience… but its very profundity makes it more difficult to achieve artistically….the psychology of terror, like true erotica, demands far more technique to comprehend and employ… [whereby] horror is a mere insistence on the gory and otherwise repugnant… “ (Masterpeices, xv).

Are we writing terror in the genre differently today? I think the answer is yes; for some reason we have decided that the blunt fun of the pulps is not worthy of Literary consideration, not worthy of further print. For some reason we think deciding this means an elevation to Literature, that real terror is in the subtext, and is something to be deciphered from cryptic and potentially boring prose. Maybe some of it is. But to call a thing a tale of terror, there should be some genre blood coursing through its veins; the average person should be able to see, feel, and appreciate it. This means there is much to discuss in our genre, ground rules that need to be established and adhered to — because Literature is most definitively not genre….but some genre is Literature.

Most of us don’t want to analyze that. We just want to know a tale of terror when we read one. We should know by the way it makes us feel…

 Tales5

 

References

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction Vol. 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction Vol. 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

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

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Madness of Art.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association p. 4-6. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007.

Mamatas, Nick. “Depth of Field.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, p. 113-117. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007

Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown: a Treasury of Bizare Tales Old and New Selected by Marvin Kaye. Marvin Kaye, ed. Garden City, New York. Guild America/Doubleday Book and Music Clubs, c1993.

The Haunting of America’s House: Have We Killed the Ghost Story?


One of the most difficult subgenres to write successfully in Horror is the ghost story, and through a century of technological intrusion and religious minimization, the task has not grown any easier. Speculation abounds: have we exhausted the medium? Have we outgrown the concept? Has everything already been done better than we can do it today?

Critics are not sure. Some are of the opinion that the masters of the medium have come and gone along with the “perfect storm” of timing – specifically the literary finesse of a better classically educated writer and the vulnerability of an audience enduring that absolution of all sin – the technological twin projectiles of electricity and the industrial revolution. Others speculate that we are somewhere on the cusp of reinvention because “in short, genres evolve – often through the influence of both aesthetic and economic factors” (Bailey 108).

Either way, there is a truth to acknowledge: our ghost stories – American ghost stories – are failing. Miserably. The question I have, is why? The British in particular are still pulling it off. And although we even might have bested them briefly, in the early 1900’s, when Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Francis Marion Crawford, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James were still part of mainstream reading, we’ve lost that precious story-telling thread: the connective tissue between the ghost and what it represents.

Real Ghosts Scare People

The last time I read a really good ghost story, it came from Iceland. The book was I remember You by international crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir… I cannot praise this book enough for bringing the power of the ghost story back to mind, and any writer who gives me nightmares is welcome on my permanent bookshelf.

How did she do it? She did it by invoking the power of local folklore muddied with the trope of the True Story, and weaving it together with the most famous of the ghost story conventions – the search for revelation and justice, creating empathy for the ghost even as she created terror of its presence. Sigurðardóttir used the possibility of a real ghost of a real person to scare the sound sleep out of us. And it worked. Because real ghosts scare people…not their image, but their possible reality and what that means for all of us.

So what are we missing?

I didn’t have to go far for the answer: we are missing the ghost. Somehow, we have managed to drift away from the actual haunting and turned the haunted house into a circus of absurdity. We have taken one of the most powerful representations of world view in Literature and neutered it, drenching it in distracting contests of evil that by their combined sheer weight, make truth and accountability impossible.

Too many times our ghost fiction is relying on a kind of absolute worst-case scenario… as in Dale Bailey’s recounting of “David Martin’s 1997 crime novel Cul-de-Sac, which pays deliberate homage to the tradition of the haunted house tale. The ill history of the eponymous house reflects the protocols of the formula: Cul-de-Sac began as a vast pre-Civil War hotel that drained the resources of its owner, served at various times in its history as a military hospital and an insane asylum, and became the site of a brutal decapitation murder. The locale is rumored to be the home of Satan, and visitors hear strains of a ghostly piano and encounter infestations of flies…” (Bailey 109).

Ye gods!

This is what the American ghost story has morphed into. And if you don’t think it is a parody of itself, read the classics, or another crime writer like Sigurðardóttir, for example – whose more subtle handling of crime and ghost are lightyears ahead of our game and seated in the real tradition of ghost story telling.

It is almost as though we have lost faith in our own ability to conjure up a ghost that can adequately scare us on its own. And maybe we have. Clearly we are not doing it right: what is more terrifying than the possibility that the afterlife is not at all what we expect it to be, and that any of us could become trapped where we don’t want to be – away from the eyes of God, away from the comfort of others, away from all chance of absolution, alone with our sins and ourselves, denied even the judgment and punishment that ends it all?

What has happened to us? The answer seems to be rooted in that infamous and ongoing battle with Britain over ruins.

That’s right. Piles of stone. Because we don’t have any. Whine, whine.

Being bereft of actual historic ruins that date back into the earliest history of man, we’ve had to improvise. For most of us, home is cookie-cutter suburbia. And when we ran out of ancient Indian burial grounds and curses, when we stopped being world savvy and we rediscovered and fully embraced Poe and his Fall of the House of Usher it occurred to us: maybe it wasn’t about the ghost after all, maybe it was the house…the home, the family, the American Dream…

What if the haunted house is the stand-in for our own twisted sense of entitlement? Eureka…

Apparently, that is most certainly something we could sink our teeth into. Says Bailey, “as long as houses remain a central symbol in American culture, our writers are likely to inhabit them with the anxieties of our day-to-day lives” (109).

This is bad news for traditional ghost story lovers. The promise is one of mundane familiarity, of boring detail, of the self-centered spoiled brat spawned in effigy as the Me Generation (I can say that being born in the thick of it), of – even worse – a kind of revisionist historical view. We have successfully re-written our past out of our spectral fiction. And we have excised the Literary root along with it. We managed to convince ourselves that the ghost is secondary… a mere appendage to wave at our vanishing birthright.

In lieu of castles, abbeys and moors, we went straight to our three-car garages and 900 square foot living rooms. We choose to mourn our own poor choices instead of taking responsibility for them, finding our worst fears materializing in our pantries and mud rooms and personal gyms… Why deal with the uncomfortable truths when you can sit on your overstuffed couch and convince yourself you earned it and the gigantic flat-screen TV guaranteed to blind any ghost in the room?

See, what I find truly sad, is that here we have an opportunity as writers to re-awaken our collective sense of responsibility by invoking the traditional ghost story. And we abdicate. We default to security cameras and found footage.

Certainly, we don’t have those awesome castles and moody moors… but we do have historic tragedies, nationally protected battlefields, ghost towns (ironically), and some pretty awesome and eerie scenery of our own. We don’t have to lurk in a covered bridge to imagine angry peoples cheated of their own heritages, to understand beheaded horsemen, exploited immigrants, stranded pioneers, massacred natives, massacred miners, fires, explosions, collapses, fraud, intimidation, theft, murder, financial ruin, domestic abuse, suicides… we’ve had them all right here without a single castle or downed abbey. For every crime there is an offender and a victim. And every one of us lives our lifetimes built on blood.

For certain, many ghost stories are meant to be nothing more than campfire tales. But do we need more than that to summon the kind of depth that follows us into the dark? The Critics think so. And they may have a point.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Boo. Boo Hoo.

Are all great ghosts Literary? Certainly not. But most of the best ghost stories are, even when they are not canon-class. Ghosts are always the after-image of something we have done… A ghost without a backstory is just a special effect. And we have seemed to embrace that formula which by its nature excludes the very humanity of ghosts and conjures unlikely scenarios to magically summon their presence in a plot. The focus is on the family-as-victim – more often the White Anglo Saxon Protestant family as victim. And to clearly not make things racist, the ghost is typically  entangled with legends of an anglo witch, a dead (or alive) psychotic murderer, or the very Devil himself.

We don’t know how to successfully include history or other peoples in our haunted houses without sounding trite. So we just simply don’t. And in creating so much of this kind of two-dimensional fiction, have we killed the American ghost story?

We’d have to turn out the lights to see… yet we are always in possession of artificial light, so we can better enjoy our artificial values. Does this mean despite the prolific dominance of technology that we are still really afraid of ghosts? That we have more than a few skeletons rotting in our closets which we are too afraid to acknowledge? I think it does.

Today the American ghost story is all hype, flash and bang with no substance. We are wrapped up in and consumed by our own sense of loss and fear of the future. What started out in the 1900’s with promise has all but languished on American bookshelves of late, victim of its own failed promises. Or maybe it is the premises that have failed.

Really. It’s Not the House That’s Haunted.

The first time I heard that phrase it turned me a bit on my ear. It was kind of thought-provoking, an interesting theory about ghosts, a reversion to “the purposeful ghost” of the seventeenth century whose dogged appearance was motivated by “the need to address wrongs, warn of danger, reveal secrets, or cure sickness” (Bennett 18). Such promise lies with those ghosts. Such promise in the phrase itself… But then we really tinkered with it, and before long it also smacked of our American penchant for “evil” … the need for speed in accelerating our terror element beyond the capacity of the story itself. And once we get started, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Here we are not revising or expanding the ghost story, we are simple trampling it. And the truly weird thing is that we are using things we profess to not even believe in to do it. Is it any wonder we aren’t scaring anyone?

One has to ask why a country so at ease in dismissing the interaction of God, Heaven and Hell in real life cannot keep our mitts off of Pure Evil for Evils’ sake (even in our fiction). And why is that supposed to scare anyone? If the Reformation purged the reality of ghosts from our midst (a view coincidentally enhanced by the electric light), how can any mere ghost hope to advance an agenda without it? Yet if we don’t accept the duality of magical thought – that neither good nor evil exist without the other – have we not reopened the very argument the Reformation was meant to seal forever? And doesn’t a reluctance to advance at least the questions asked by religion sabotage the ghost before it can walk? Is that why we dust off the devil so often?

Tradition would suggest so. Because the ghost story tradition is all about accountability, justice for the marginalized. If The Devil Made Us Do It, are we not absolved? Blameless? Innocent as newborn babes?

The British writers of spectral fiction clearly know this is a cop-out. And let’s face it, the Reformation started in their neighborhood. If anyone was going to be derailed by Protestantism in the ghost story, it should have been them. Yet there is no such disorientation in British ghost stories. The weird gyrations are all ours, and that makes the explanation all the more personal.

From what I see as a reader of ghost stories, the problem is the American aversion to the confession of sins. Maybe it is our Protestant roots showing, or maybe it is our more alarming contemporary tendency toward historical revisionism. But the ghost story is all about confronting our own sins and the American ghost story has morphed into a blame-the-victim plot point. By victim, I do not mean the haunted person, or the haunted house; no, our victim has become the ghost itself and everything it stands for

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

We do not seek to empathize with the ghost, to solve the mystery, to bring it peace, to wish it well, to coax it into The Light. Instead, the hapless spirit becomes the tool of something bigger, larger, worse. The Worst. The Worst EVER.

That way, we can set out to banish it. We can blow up the house it inhabits, the very same way our dreams have been imploded by those we cannot quite reach as they build ever larger mansions above us.

Remember, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s poor us. We are the victims.

Yet we built the house. And the house is the problem.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There. You. You Who?

In his Critical look at the ghost story, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey states, “The contemporary haunted house formula dispenses not only with ghosts, but the ontological uncertainty – did anything spectral really happen? … Instead, the formula opts for a flatly prosaic depiction of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present (and very frequently none are)” (5-6).

Vengeful ghost trouble? We’ll fix you… Responsible for building a wondrous country on a hideous legacy of genocide, child labor, slavery, and misogyny? No problem. Tah dah! It was the house…Evil happens. Not our fault then. Still not our fault.

Yet the house itself is a “tell.” And it is telling on us.

Says Bailey, “…the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance…In part, I think, the answer grows out of the clash between American ideals and realities, the three or four key themes in American life to which the house, and especially the haunted house, naturally lends itself as a vehicle for commentary…Good haunted house novels… often provoke our fears about ourselves and our society, and, at their very best, they present deeply subversive critiques of all that we hold to be true – about class, about race, about gender, about American history itself. In part because of the formulaic construction, such novels frequently employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might be profitably reformed” (5-6)

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

So the house itself, in becoming home, also became a symbol of the American Dream and by its placement in neighborhoods, its illustriousness of walls, it defines who gets to participate, who is nurtured by the Dream and who is devoured by it, or worse, who is sacrificed in its name.

The irony is that no one is immune. Forget the ancient Indian burial ground: we are our own personal devils. Continues Bailey, “The afterglow of the American Revolution had barely worn off when a new generation of American writers began to suspect a startling and unpleasant truth: that they had toppled King George only to raise King Dollar in his stead” (7). The centuries since, have informed all of us that equity was not going to be part of the promise kept.

So where is the writer in all of this? Why aren’t we hearing a voice of outrage cast in luminous ectoplasm?

Maybe we’re just too busy trying to baffle ’em with bullsh**t. Or maybe we are afraid we won’t get published if we call it like we see it. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

Chaos is Not Enough

In reading Literary Critic S. T. Joshi’s critical essay on Horror author Peter Straub, I found phrases that seem to apply alarmingly frequently to the modern American ghost story. For example, we too often neglect to “account adequately” for a viable origin of the supernatural element, (Joshi 204), or even occasionally fail to commit to whether the supernatural is even really involved at all, leaving the reader to stew over the reality of events (205), or we sabotage the climax with an anti-climax in some misconstrued attempt to surprise the reader with some misbegotten truth (205). Too often we share what Joshi calls “an awkwardness in writing a plausible conclusion’’ (206), or even a “penchant for happy endings… [including] the complete elimination of the horror, whether it be natural or supernatural” (207).

Why are we doing this? And if it isn’t ignorance or ineptitude, is it fear?

In my opinion, Joshi nailed all of our coffins closed with one essay. American ghost stories today come across as lazily conceived, half-baked, over-anticipated opportunities for special effects. And if you love ghost stories – really love them – you know that the worst always happens in your own head.

The classics were written with this very awareness. We were not plagued with mundane details, the minutiae of ordinary life and boring characters designed to lull us into a false sense of security… because why pay to read what we all already live? Yet it seems we can’t stop ourselves. And the result is mind-numbing; we see more and more ghost story fiction that seems to be taking its tradition from screenwriting in place of Literature, utilizing the idea of the mind-as-camera, foisting us –willing or otherwise – into the long preamble of a supernatural event being developed as we read, absent of creative control and abandoning all hope of Literary intent.

Once again I discovered useful and appropriate phrasing within the context of another Joshi essay, this time on Robert Aickman, addressing the need for logic in supernatural fiction. Because I also see the obvious suspension of logic being used as an excuse for “mystifying” the reader, or dazzling the reader with alleged arcane detail that simply has no connection to events that the reader can make or appreciate…as though making the reader murmur, “I don’t get it” is supposed to imply that the writing is “deep” when it is just convoluted.

Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Joshi in his quote of L.P. Hartley, “a master of weird fiction…” who stated, “The ghost story writer’s task is the more difficult [i.e., than the detective story writer’s] for not only must he create a world in which reason doesn’t hold sway, but he must invent laws for it. Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (220).

So have we ruined ghost fiction and the story of the haunted house? I think not, but it’s time for a change from our current trajectory. We have explored this spur of the track as far as it goes and it is a dead end (no pun intended). We have to stop the chaotic dance that makes our spectral fiction read like a cartoon and Hollywood salivate. We are fiction writers, and our tradition is to poke the beast, not bribe it.

Is our haunted house really the American Dream? Maybe. But nobody likes a whiner, and right now, to write our ghosts disguised as mourning the ease of access to the American Dream which was itself a unique phenomenon in an unrepeatable period of American history is no less than whining. Our ghosts are better than that, and so are we. Maybe we should look at the poetic justice of it… And channel ghosts – real ghosts – in much smaller, age-appropriate houses.

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.

Bennett, Giliian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

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

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa. I Remember You: a Ghost Story. New York: Minotaur Books, c2012.