The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

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The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

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A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

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

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


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

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

There had to be. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We thought it was us.

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

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

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

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

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

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

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

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Terror (and When They Aren’t)


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

Did we not understand what was intended?

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

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

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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.

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.