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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is also what Horror is all about.

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

Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.

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

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

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

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

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The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems a very real and very dark possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sredni Vashtar demands it.

 

The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)

Novels

The Chronicles of Clovis

When William Came

 Short Stories

A Bread and Butter Miss
A Defensive Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 References

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.