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…

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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.

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Crisis on the Leng Plateau: the Struggle for the Soul of American Horror


Maybe it’s Lovecraft’s fault… After all, he did it so well.

But lately I figure somewhere there must be an explanation as to why in contemporary American Horror, the weakest point of the story tends to be the monster. I’ve fallen for blurbs, for cover art, for Famous Horror Writer recommendations. Yet time and again the monster just isn’t scary, or eerie, or haunting. If I come away with any manner of emotional displacement, the author (or the concept) tends to be from an earlier period of Horror history, or not to be American at all.

Could it be that we are so excited about what we hope to write that we forget WHAT we are writing? Are we that ignorant of our own genre history? Is it possible that we don’t even know what genre writing is anymore?

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

The genre of Horror has actual history… it has a bloodline and a marked route of exploration and developmental growth. During its earlier years when the term “Gothic” or “ghost story” would no longer adequately encompass what was being written, writers and editors and publishers began calling what was being produced by new and confusing names – Supernatural Fiction, Spectral Fiction, Strange tales, Weird tales, Terror, and Horror.

True to form, everyone had a different interpretation of definitions and definition boundaries even then. And this confusion continues a bit to this day, but now more in the Critical quarter – because remember that it is the Literary Critic whose job it is to decide how to categorize Literature for the sake of Literary analysis. And we now have actual Critics in our genre corner…

With changing times, the former discourse between writers of subgenre fiction seems broken, its writers (new and seasoned) now scattered about in genre isolation with less publication venues to offer dedicated subgenre havens, fewer informed editors and actual examples of subgenre fiction. So the rest of us just tend to pronounce ourselves as writing this or that with no real forethought or thorough Literary understanding of the definitions we use.

But today we are blessed to have S.T. Joshi and China Mieville in our genre corner. And it is the coming of these two Literary Critics that has lifted our genre from the stage of Literary argument (is Horror Literature) to the stage of Literary analysis (which Horror is Literature and why). Of the two, I find the most useful published Criticism by S.T. Joshi (although I really would like to see something more and intense by Mieville). And it is Joshi who has started me thinking – well, Weird.

As part of his job as a Critic, and one of the first in our genre, Joshi has taken the necessary step of attempting to tackle the definitions of genre and subgenre work in Horror and to nail them down. In his book The Weird Tale, he takes the opportunity to present an argument to clarify his rationale for chosen categories in the genre, and to open the discussion on how the genre should be Literarily argued. What is exceptional here, is Mr. Joshi’s attempt to include the modern Horror reader and writers in this discussion.

He does not “talk down” to genre fans and writers; he simply explains how he sees the parsing of the genre for Literary analysis and –most importantly – why he believes his rationalizations are either correct or ripe for discussion. Yet isn’t it awkward that most of us have no idea what Joshi is talking about? Or know that he is talking? This ignorance of our own literary progression has left our imaginations (replete with monsters) high centered on a plateau of mediocre fiction…a Leng Plateau…

I’m saying that the reason we don’t know is exactly why our monsters are in crisis, why our writing has lost its authoritative voice, why the British seem to have a strong sense of place in their fiction and we seem to be nomads. We have disconnected with the past; we are balloon writers floating above the plains of Leng…

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

We have allowed ourselves as writers (sadly, sometimes innocently enough) to be led by the public, by publishers’ guesstimates of what the public wants, by editors who might be coerced into finding the next Stephen King instead of the next genre-changer. Worse, we have allowed ourselves to be led by the promise of Hollywood and merchandising. We have committed the greatest sin in Lovecraft’s eyes: writing for money…

Okay, so let’s be clear: Lovecraft desired publication, he submitted stories, he was occasionally paid for them, he lived off an inheritance and a wife as long as he could, then was reduced to editing other authors for a living. Lovecraft was not saying he was against publication. He was saying one doesn’t change the story to get it published. He was saying a writer needs to pursue the higher art offered by the story, no matter how many rejections that equates to; that a writer should be true to his or her vision. In this case, he is firmly in alignment with the Literary Critic.

Yet how many of us actually have cultivated a vision for our writing? How many of us think in terms of legacy instead of simple solvency?

The problem is, no one is out there teaching us about the history and mechanics of Horror. No one except our very own Critics right now. We need to read them. We have artistic decisions to make.

Golden Age writers knew what they were writing, where it could find an audience, what publications were their choices… Today, we just write, and submit to any publication that we can find. Most of us cannot categorize ourselves, let alone our fiction, because to categorize our work would be to narrow our choices, our sense of opportunity.

Example: I recently visited a website for a regional writer’s group, looking for Horror writers. What I found was the comment “is willing to write Horror.” WILLING to write Horror?! Where is the writer who unabashedly is PROUD to write Horror?

Sometimes I think we lost our own section in Horror because many of us have lost the understanding of what we are intending to write. And marketing departments are only too happy to pronounce the demise of genre writing.

So why does the very thought cause us an instinctive knee-jerk reaction? Is it because the meandering away from genre conventions is an accidental misstep and that we never meant to abandon genre? Yet is that also why our monsters have lost their teeth and grown human appendages where tentacles should be? Do we know how to get back into formula?

My Weird Tales Epiphany

Maybe it’s time we listened to our elders – the genre greats who started a conversation that just seemed to evaporate in the 1990’s altogether, and which has been resuscitated in part by S.T. Joshi. Have we forgotten the rabid dedication many authors and editors once had to the argument over terms and subgenres?

Today if a writer doesn’t research the genre personally or trip over key essays chances are he or she just hasn’t a clue what has gone before and where we are now. For instance, since the genre began to grow in popularity in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there have been arguers and defenders of the usage of the terms Horror, Terror, Supernatural, Strange and Weird to define the many types of writing we may do.

Did you even know that there has been an internal unrest about what our genre should in fact be calling itself for quite some time?

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because if you write Horror, you are on the battlefield up to your Muse. Shouldn’t you be at least aware of your place in the tradition? The British (our main competitors) seem ever to be…

While a large part of writing – most specifically drafting – is drenched in magic and mystery and wonder, in the end we need to know as ­authors of a story exactly what we are trying to say. Then we need to revise to be sure we are saying it. Only then can we be certain that the genre is worthy of its name – whichever one is ultimately chosen.

The name “Horror” has taken a beating for a while now. It and “Terror” in its turn has been commandeered by current events to the point that many are reluctant to use it. It has driven genre fans in droves back to more “antiquated” terms like “Weird” and “Strange” to defend and salvage the genre. But I think we shouldn’t be letting “world events” distort our genre to that effect. I think the conversation of what we are writing is germane to what we choose to call it. And I don’t think we can call it something if we don’t know the definitions of those terms.

Horror itself has been keelhauled for being an emotion. Why, ask its detractors, do we want to name our genre with an emotion when almost all other genres are described by nouns or adjectives? I believe that the word – emotion or not – encompasses all that the genre tries to inflict upon the reader – an emotional response. In that capacity, it is like Thrillers, Suspense, and Romance. It is asking the brain to explore dark corners, to revisit the primal place of fear, terror, revulsion, disgust, dread – you know – horror.

But some genre experts (those who have duly earned their stripes as writers, editors, and Critics of the genre) sometimes feel otherwise, that Horror is more about gore and dismemberment – fear of our fellow man or human-ness than that which merely disturbs. They will argue for other terms – like Weird. I’m thinking we are arguing over semantics here, over connotation and denotation... But what is important is agreeing on what our genre is and should be called, what its conventions and formulas should include or exclude. There should not be any question in a writer’s mind.

Enter S.T. Joshi, Literary Critic and the best friend Horror has in Literature right now. Joshi, perhaps the world’s greatest contemporary expert on all things H.P. Lovecraft, has embraced the Weird. Like his object of research, he has come to believe that Horror is more a subgenre of Weird fiction than the other way around. And he uses Lovecraft to explain why. Whereas according to Lovecraft “The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen” (Joshi 6), Joshi states, “I begin my own study with a rather odd assertion: the weird tale, in the period … (generally 1880 -1940) did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view…” [his emphasis] (xiii).

Most assuredly, that is the Literary Critic in Joshi talking… because it is the presence, the omniscience of a world view that elevates a work from genre to Literature. And if Weird fiction is more commonly Literature than average Horror fiction, then is it not the tree from which the apple falls?

You can see how quickly this conversation becomes interesting and relevant to all genre writers and fans. It is why Joshi has put his work out there. Discussion is the key to movement… to breathing life into the Critical process.

But it is also integral to creating new Lovecrafts. We all have to be on the same page. And at a time when we seem to have lost our national genre compass, shouldn’t we get on board with this very basic Critical idea – the naming of parts, the re-establishment of genre, the enforcement of boundaries and celebrating rebellions against the very same? How else can we commit to writing a story we can encapsulate with a category name if we don’t know the terms of surrender?

Believe it or not, many of us as Horror writers have never really considered this, and it may be the deserving reason we get rejected.

Here’s a thought based on that statement: to elevate a story beyond the genre, to be genre-changing we must first be able to write genre.

Can you? Can you structure a monster based on a subgenre? Do you know what that means? I am not so sure we do, because I don’t see any establishment figures laying out the formula they claim is criteria. I see allusions to formula, partial lists of conventions, scattered tropes…I do not see a book or website or rule guide dedicated to defining the genre as only this and never that. A writer should not have to piece genre formula together like a quilt, over decades of rejections and gleaning gems from essays and editorial forwards and interviews. Yet only the subgenres of Weird (pardon me for the classification liberty) and ghost story/Spectral fiction have easIER guidlelines to find…

Editors have pronounced themselves too busy. Universities are teaching and preaching against genre. Workshops are a gamble, writers groups may “accept” but don’t generally specialize in genre writing, how-to’s have Gone Hollywood. What’s a genre purist to do?

If you want technical assistance, you need a Critic: read Joshi.

If you want written examples, read Golden Age genre writers – read Weird Tales from the day.

That’s right. Under the scales and leathery wings of the greatest of all Literary Horror monsters (Horror being the overarching term I am predisposed to), beats a heart of pulp.

Get thee to a collection of early Weird Tales… I recently found a copy at a used book shop, one edited by famed genre editor Marvin Kaye, who back in the 1990’s also edited several anthologies of the subgenres including Terror, the Supernatural, the Unknown, Ghosts, Witches, Devils and Demons… I remembered having read many of the stories when I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I assumed I would read them, smile in remembrance, and move on.

Wrong.

I was awed. Stunned. My imagination was RE-filled with the passion that started my love affair with the Horror genre. How did we lose this? I wondered aloud. How did we lose this awesome ability to tell tales that in mere pages can keep us up and night and hungering for more?

Is it because authors in those days had a bevy of magazines whose “bar” was set a bit lower to acquiring and keeping a basic readership – not set to making an author’s or an editor’s Big Break, not set to doubling its subscription base annually or it is a “business failure,” not reliant on burying writing among ads just to stay in print… not set to the equivalent of tossing a bottle out on the ocean so it could be “discovered in its excellence” by the masses who would theoretically spend lavishly to keep it on the internet ocean?

Is it because it was “just pulp” and not overreaching to call itself high Literature, its writers happy to just spill its monsters into cheap prose to see what else might hatch? Is it because no matter how poorly writers were paid, writers could by being prolific, actually make a poor living doing it?

Who knows? But those very circumstances led to some of the absolute greatest writing of our genre – some of it now admittedly Literature…

It also inspired contemporary writers – like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell – our current models of success with totally different styles. It set the standard for Horror in Literature by revisiting Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, Dunsany and Bierce. It made all of us want to be Horror writers…

Calling Central Casting

To perform at our best, to exercise the boundaries of genre and flirt with the meaning and power of Literature, we cannot be trying to manipulate our fiction so Hollywood can use it. We cannot be motivated by fame and fortune. We cannot allow ourselves to be told we either “write for Hollywood or for Critics.”

It’s not about starving. It’s about producing ART, not mass producing drivel. Because if that is what we are teaching ourselves to write, then we roundly deserve the stinging criticisms of editors and Critics. We are rolling our monsters out on a rack time after time and expecting a different result.

Stop the insanity!

We need to write for ourselves. For our genre. For our audience.

When you read fiction written for you, there is no doubt; you are sitting next to the campfire, the storyteller is looking at you right in the eye, and the monster is drooling just at the edge of the darkness. You can feel his breath on your neck, imagine his fangs tearing at your flesh…and anything is possible…even the impossible.

So are you writing Weird or Horror fiction? Or are you perhaps writing in the subgenre of Terror or Strange tales?

And if you don’t know, shouldn’t you be finding out? Because right now our monsters are suffering from a clear identity crisis. We don’t seem able to write them without it looking like we are attempting a parody or poking fun. American monsters leap, crawl, and ooze onto our literary theater with the impact of a stage magician pulling a very tired old rabbit out of the hat. We have lost something besides the element of surprise.

Surprise! Storytelling is an art that has its own rules. I say again…look at pulp.

Stories fail for so many different reasons. They should not be failing because we glimpse the monster, or we rolled him out on a rack. That should be a moment of pure Terror. Horror. Weirdness. FEAR.

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c 1990.

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

Weird Tales. Marvin Kaye, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, c1988.

Recommended Websites:

Weird site: http://greydogtales.com/blog/?p=1336

Horror site: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/category/columns/

 

Where Have All the Tentacles Gone? (Why Good Horror Is Hard to Write)


Chances are if you are a reader of Horror, you’ve noticed what a lot of Critics – even Horror Critics – have noticed: comparative to other eras in the genre, not much good Horror (meaning competently written and scary) is being written and even less canon-worthy great Horror. This is in turn makes exciting, quality new Horror even harder to find, and the impression is building that perhaps the genre has indeed bottomed out.

Has all of the Great Horror been written?

This is a question that haunts even Horror writers. Many of us start with what seem like really good ideas, and yet many of those ideas fail to translate properly to the page.

Why?

As a writer, I wanted to know. Turns out, we do have some pretty good excuses. And if we are going to put readers and Critical concerns to rest, we are all going to need dig our way out of the graveyard to do it.

Welcome to the Age of Realism

For one thing, it turns out technology has ruined a lot of good Horror. When science rises to the average person’s consciousness – along with all of the tools of science (like electric lights and a broader understanding of natural and therefore supernatural events) – we become skeptics and less easy to frighten.

Many writers of yore believed in the power of superstition to captivate and terrify an audience. In fact, most of the truly great Horror writers of the classics that scare us so much, did not themselves believe in the supernatural per se. Instead they capitalized on an undercurrent of superstition that was inherent to the times, combined with the all-too-human fear of change.

But today the atmosphere itself has changed a bit. As our knowledge and understanding of the natural world grew, our fears transferred from folk and fairy tales, ghosts and goblins to technology and the intentions of our fellow humanity. Thence came a proliferation of human monsters and psychological Horror, which leeched a lot of writers from our genre when it didn’t subdivide it into even more confusing subgenres.

While many modern writers have tried to spin the situation, crippling technology to let in the darkness, or using technology as the vehicle by which all manner of monsters may enter our world, it hasn’t had the same effect. Ask any ghost: it’s harder to scare people these days – not because we are smarter, or braver, or endowed with sciencey tools that understand and banish the paranormal and supernormal, but because science has largely convinced us that even if we ourselves don’t have the rational explanation, we are certain there is one. With a few hundred pages or ninety minutes of film, we can just turn the monster off.

Meanwhile (as any hiker can attest) complete isolation is harder than ever to come by. Many of us live farther from rural areas where that natural stuff tends to bend our perceptions into balloon animals of terror. But phones and the internet are everywhere. The bump in the night is easily ascribed to neighbors on three sides, on children just across the hall, on the many pets we allow in the house. We forget that in times past, most of our audience and many of our writers lived in or were exposed to the reality of distance for attaining help, the need to travel alone in the dark anywhere for a good chunk of the day (or dark and rainy night), being financially trapped in inherited and flawed older homes where relatives and spouses could be separated by floors or rooms we don’t really have anymore and attended by servants potentially nurturing profound resentments or dogged loyalties.

We forget the attitude we had toward animals – they had jobs or they were gone, and few if any were trusted enough to be allowed in the house in order to contribute to the noises heard and the shadows glimpsed out of the corners of the eye. Animals were seldom friends, and were often too willing to become the predators we feared or carelessly created.

We forget the role of religion in our lives was not merely an obligation on Sundays, but a necessity for ensuring our daily protection against the unseen, against our fears and our guilt. We forget the guilt that we may actually deserve to experience.

We also forget the authority that religion represented in our lives, the flip side of which was protection against ghosts and spirits, devils and witches. If we could imagine it, religion had a process to banish it. For many of us today, religion has become another kind of superstition. Except in emergencies and foxholes and times of sudden personal crisis, we have banished a lot of our religion to the same junk-pile as Old World superstition. With it, a lot of traditional monsters were swept out of our immediate fears.

We can now compartmentalize most of our monsters and our fears, because the modern world facilitates that pattern.

Even so, all of these things when recalled to the mind in just the right circumstances still lay the groundwork for wild fancies of the imagination (if and when we can recapture the essence of those moments and their subsequent vulnerabilities). And while we have kept the monster in the closet and under the bed, we have lost the dark woods and empty fields and moonlit nights he oozed from. Monsters are disconnected; they tend to just appear without backstory.

For those few unsavory creatures that remain, we have our monsters trapped. And let’s just face it: the knowledge is intoxicating…and Horror-killing.

According to Literary Critics, we have been writing realism in the genre since about the time of Lovecraft, who may have inadvertently started it. Lovecraft wove the emerging “world view” into what was then termed Weird Fiction, blurring the lines between what we know as Horror and the then-budding genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. By the time the boom of the 1970’s rolled around, Horror writers were writing characters that were like the rest of us – just common folk – and situational plots like most of us experience – so we are easily (and all too often predictably) victimized by our own underestimation of the supernatural.

But something went terribly wrong. Suddenly the writing went trite and “banal”… We began to have best sellers and movie blockbusters, but we lost the Literary thread so carefully nurtured by early writers in the genre, and books and their subsequent movies became toothless assembly lines of mostly cartoon Horror. Our genre became a parody of itself.

For writers who care about regaining that winsome (and apparently temperamental) thread, the fix seemed to be easy. But it has proven frightfully elusive. We are having a hard time shaking technology. We are having a harder time shaking our science-addled audience.

We have tried isolating our characters, causing technology to fail and cell towers to go missing. But the only time our monsters have truly scared us was more like when they simply startled us by lurching out of the darkness…an effect that itself diminishes over time.

So the glove has been thrown down. And some of us just can’t let go of the belief that the success of a monster is all about the immediacy of a jump scare. What Literary Critics are pointing out, is that this makes our work two-dimensional because real terror happens when that monster is also a representation – a stand-in, if you will – of an even greater fear.

Take the book and movie Alien. On the surface, it is simple and easily Hollywood…a crew isolated and trapped on a dark space ship with a deadly monster they cannot completely see. But when the monster is really science as a corporate entity that threatens to compromise us all, the monster on board becomes the weapon of that very real world of technology. This stokes the very fear many of us have of advanced technology we don’t understand but which we must trust daily to rest in the hands of the few and powerful. We don’t want to be the crewman just doing his job that gets a face-hugger for the effort.

Elements of Literature, then – or connecting the written story to a statement about the human condition – are the greatest source of terror.

Yet we seem to have lost the ability to fully shape that fear that should spawn our monsters. Instead, we fashion something with scary parts and expect it to do the work of Literature. It does not. No matter how many vampire versus werewolf wars you start. No matter how many tentacles drape from your monster and drag across the page.

Too Many Witches Spoil the Brew

As writers, we tend to listen to….everybody but the voice in our heads. This is not good. Maybe that’s why I prefer to write in the quiet of the wee hours before the other voices take hold.

When we try to write to cover all of the bases those voices demand – to write a character that can be merchandized, or a monster that can be franchised, books that can spawn sequels and prequels and spin-offs – we are not writing the story as dictated. We are editing the Muse before the rightful editing stage. We ourselves are too afraid to look closely at what may be the truth: we don’t really have a story yet. We are writing backwards. We are writing for money. Or fame.

I get it. I am not an advocate of starvation. And I don’t think poverty makes us better writers, either – although it does a lot for writers whose works become examples of Marxist Theory…

But I do think that listening to people who want cheap thrills, or who want to hitch their professional wagons to a blazing flash-in-the-pan best seller is costing us as a whole. Nor do we need to adopt the tradition of “networking” that some college writing programs promote: we do not need yet another “good old boys”- type system to market fiction not yet properly matured, nor do we need academically-driven programs which force the magnificence of many Voices into tightly constricted molds of limited Literary styles.

As the pool of lesser, non-Literary works grows, these types of published stories become our working example of what we think Horror writing is. They do so, because we have no one to tell us otherwise. We just hear a lot of moaning and groaning from the Peanut Gallery requesting something new and original…all of it free-floating while even more of the same kind of works get published in direct contradiction of what was just said.  

Yet we keep returning to the old stuff, to the classics and those authors for inspiration. We keep trying to figure out what they were doing that we are not…Instead of dissecting the mechanics of what those writers managed to achieve, we tell ourselves that today we are all of us too sophisticated…that such things wouldn’t scare a modern audience.

Yet it is the modern audience who keeps buying those reprinted works. In droves.

So who do we listen to?

This is the real problem. So for the benefit of those who complain Literary Horror is endangered if not gone… listen up.

We Can Wait for Prodigies, or We Can Teach What We Have

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Only talent is inherited. After that, instruction is important.

Writing is the only field where we expect our Greats to emerge from the womb with a feather pen in hand and pure Literature dripping from its tip. All of the other Arts provide mentorship, apprenticeship, and training.

No longer are our national best centrally located in one or two Northeast cities, Literary giants bumping into one another on country walks, dining in clubs and exchanging ideas, reviews, and criticisms. We are far-flung, without patrons, and loaded down with economic baggage. Arts and artists are marginalized, sacrificed to the gods of sports and technology, budgets slashed, art history and art comprehension gone. We do not teach the Arts. We do not teach Literature. We brush past it hurriedly on our way to the next iPhone.

We in the Arts are directed to stand behind the cloak of Technology and it will provide us with the path to riches…And if someone actually taught us about our fields, maybe it would be a truth today instead of an exception.

We all know that the secret is somewhere in the works of the past. And now we need Literary Critics to show us some of those secrets, because we are not getting it in our education. For genre writers, this is especially true, because most teachers of Literature are not interested in pointing out the seeds of modern Horror in Gothic Romance and they don’t want to read term papers about Horror fiction.

The answer is that we – all of us including educators and Critics – need to stop assuming that the only great genre-infused Literature happens by Divine Intervention. Who knows how many would-be Lovecrafts or Poes are out there, guessing about what revisions are being secretly coded in those rejection letters, and whether those writing those rejections want more banal, trite stuff to mass market, or whether they too are searching for Literary seedlings.

We’re writers, not mind readers. We’re starving, not greedy. Yet most of us would be thrilled to know that what we write is and should be a conscious choice.

Why isn’t great Horror being written? Because most of us are playing Marco Polo in the dark. No wonder so many of us give up, or give up on trying to write Literarily.

Yes, there has been quite the desert of talent spooling out in the genre, burying everything not Stephen King in dunes of sand. But it’s because something has indeed changed. We are no longer being taught. Not in school, not by attrition. Not even the basics. As students in the Arts our concern is coloring in bubbles on standardized tests…On getting to that piece of paper so we can compete for fewer and fewer good-paying jobs that allow us enough “spare time” in which to write. We have fewer and fewer publishing opportunities with smaller and smaller submission windows at fewer and fewer “established” magazines that Real Genre Editors respect.

It’s not that we don’t care as writers. But we need to be able to find and afford writing programs that mentor and mentor in speculative fiction. We need more works like those of S.T. Joshi that help explain why our fiction today is not firing on all cylinders. I admit I am a big fan of Joshi, because he is heavily and personally invested in our genre. He is largely right. We need craft. We need mechanics. We need to be able to critically think when we as writers READ our genre classics.

Want us to scare you? We GOT the monsters….we just don’t know where to put them where technology can’t vaporize them.

We need to understand once again what classic writers did about their audiences:

It’s not about being superstitious. It’s about making ourselves afraid that the very core of what we believe might be wrong.

Isn’t that why Cthulhu really waits?

 

References:

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

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

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.

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