Tanith Lee: Why Horror’s Future Depends on Subgenres — A Women In Horror Month Tribute (Part 2)


What this entire “episode” with Tanith Lee has taught me is that our genre needs to grow up…

We have enshrined the period of time which most purely and evidently exemplifies its natural growth from its original Literary DNA – the period we call The Weird. But is that time representative of The End of originality in the genre, or was it a simple (though awesome) creative burst born of circumstance, of writers who could inform each other’s work via education, exposure, or direct contact and support…and then died with them?

I say that like the Horror Boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the period of Weird was an exception – a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime explosion of insight and creativity built on a contrived and flawed premise that men write more and better Horror. And it being over means nothing more than the rest of us go back to the drawing board – after a cigarette, maybe – but back.

But it also means our genre needs to be attentive to the next creative wave, the next influencers, because the future most likely is NOT Weird. Writers like Tanith Lee who opened a wound and let it bleed out its truth along with its poison are no less formative and influential than the Weird writers. For better or worse they, too, reveal our innermost fears, our prejudices, our imagined terrors. It is because a writer like Tanith Lee wrote about gender issues in the exact way that she did, that we have welcomed other authors who toy with other previously “forbidden” subjects and threaten to open even bigger cans of worms. We have so much further to go. Why are our knuckles being rapped and our heads being forcibly turned to worship the last mutually acknowledged Horror greats? Why are we only worshipping the works of primarily white men?

Our genre needs rebellious writers – writers like Lee who rebel by their natures. We need writers who push envelopes and test our tolerance, opening the very Literary doors we claim to want to pull from their hinges. Horror must grow and change to survive. We must embrace those Literary issues we claim we want. And we must defend them even when they are uncomfortable or unsavory.

We can start by acknowledging the contributions of Tanith Lee.

 

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When Horror Is Literature

When we look at Horror history, we tend to see a lot of homogenization…

This is partly because the Horror writing community was smaller, more influenced by each other and what publishers would or would not publish – a social currency owned by the white male majority. But it was also because Horror has been patriarchically dominated for most of it publication history. That earliest of publishing booms which happened at the turn of the 19th century segregated our writers into two camps – one struggling to climb out of pulp into the Literary via books and reputable newspapers and magazines (led by men like Poe and Lovecraft); and one sentenced to cheaper pulp magazines where “women’s writing” was destined for women’s consumption only and made of less-permanent materials as its lesser value warranted.

This, was the true meaning, origin and purpose of what we call pulp: Critically deemed substandard written content meant to be read in the moment and tossed away because it had no Literary or relevant news value. This is where women’s Horror often wound up, along with Horror from men who might fall into disfavor by choosing to write for women, or to write the far-fetched, the unacceptable…the sensational…

So with fewer women’s writings surviving, and even fewer finding any measure of publishing or Critical success, is it any wonder that we were all left to assume that only white men wrote Horror, and the best of our genre carried a kind of identifiable, formulaic content, character and interest?

And when we look back at seminal works, why are we surprised that not only do those works have a cachet of coming from a narrow, homogenous type of writer, but that they also demonstrate a clear Critical relation to each other?

That these predominantly white male writers seem so much to have created a concise body of work is no mistake: it is what happens when writers are isolated in a singular pool where ideas are freely exchanged and respected. It is not unlike a school of writers with the same teachers and influences – because in many ways that’s what they were; writers whose successes taught each other. Yet they were also representative of a moment in time.

Each of us has one. Some of us use it. Some of us just write to see what happens.

For our genre right now to continue to look back with heavy sighs and great longing for the likes of Poe and Lovecraft is telling. It is not that those works are not worthy, but that we have mistaken a creative burst from the late 19th and early 20th century as the thing Horror was destined to be – ALL it was destined to be.

Talk about disappearing every writer that comes after…

When we consider that many of our early writers – especially Poe and Lovecraft – spent a good deal of time arguing the case of Horror being Literary to very astute and stubborn Literary Critics of the time, it comes as a disappointment to see that at the precise moment our genre has won the attention of those same Critics and our editors are hoping to groom more Literary elements in genre writing, we are stepping over authors writing about those very Literary issues.

We step over them like they are poisonous.

Is it because we are aware of how tenuous the attentions of publishers are right now? Because we are afraid we cannot risk losing a single dollar in sales? Because we are wary of alienating readers and fans whose idea of Literature is represented by a bunch of dead writers, or “issues” we have a predisposition to prefer? Is it because neither editors, publishers, nor our base has any stomach for diving head first into the pool of ugly modern issues? Or because they don’t have the guts?

Are we afraid we will “become” gay, or Muslim, or womanish, or poor, or immersed in wars, or become unChristian if we accidentally or on purpose read about those things? What exactly are we afraid of catching? Of discovering?

Horror has always had Literary DNA. Horror is always about the human condition and how we interpret and treat each other. That includes with regard to unsavory issues – especially unsavory issues.

Yet in contemporary Horror, we have a Literary desert. And it feels perpetrated. Orchestrated.

Hidden away within this whole mysterious disappearance of Tanith Lee thing are these two important questions:

Do we in the Horror genre have a “problem” with Queer fiction and open gender issues?

Do we demand and then reject Literary subjects, preferring to kill the genre rather than accept new subgenres?

At what point do we stop waiting for a bloom from the corpse of the Weird writers to rise and save Horror from itself? When do we begin looking at the issues that are disturbing modern writers in general and Horror in particular?

When it is ok to be Tanith Lee?

T2

Any writer who writes utilizing or framing issues of the day – the social, cultural, racial, class, national, religious and historical issues – that writer is potentially writing Literature. Do it often enough and they are Literary. We don’t get to qualify which issues see daylight in a writer’s work. We don’t get to hide the work that scares us.

We don’t get to hide the Tanith Lees. Not even when things are confusing enough without her.

“Her books were often rather directly queer and feminist in their appropriation of fairy tales, fantastical and perverse worlds and creatures, and narrative tropes. She also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber and weird fiction under the related name Judas Garbah, as collected in Disturbed by Her Song and Fatal Women (both available from Lethe Press).” https://www.tor.com/2015/05/29/tanith-lee-a-brief-retrospective/

We live in a push-me, pull-you world. Sometimes we are told that Horror as a genre is all-but-dead. Other times we are told we are in a Renaissance, finally escaping the Dark Ages (which I personally believe we are). But does what happened to Tanith Lee suggest the problem is a little bit of both? I think it does.

Just as Horror from the Weird generation has changed enough to be suspected of being truly dead, Horror as an extension of the 1970s-1980’s Boom is indeed on life support; we have exhausted all of the trite, commercial and exploitative plots and themes those times spun out from that brilliant center of storytelling. We have to be honest: at the end we got sloppy… desperate… cheaply gratuitous. There were very few good novels issuing forth at the same time publishing began to take Technology body blows – and at the same time (it was later theorized) a chunk of our fan base had aged out.

So much began to collapse all at one time: publishers, periodicals, editors, brick-and-mortar bookstores, newspaper with their book review columns, library budgets, education in the Liberal Arts, the field of Literary Criticism… It was a perfect storm. And everyone in the genre in every position in the genre was left to sink or swim, to figure out what it would take to survive. As the bodies began to wash ashore, one thing became crystal clear: what once worked no longer worked. Change was going to have to happen if the genre was going to survive, let alone prosper.

As a genre it was a sobering, pocket-patting moment. There was so much carnage, we resorted to counting our own body parts, too distracted by the fear for our own survival to protest the hemorrhaging of midlist authors and the death songs of editors and publishers everywhere. Some might even venture to say that this is why Tanith Lee seemed to vanish, why publishers ceased to publish her, and why we had nothing left in the tank to protest.

But that is a cop-out. With the Horror ship going down for the third time, we clung to writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and Richard Matheson to save us all. That Tanith Lee used to be among that solid-selling list and then suddenly was not is what is noticeable. Even with her cross-genre dabbling, her control of the Gothic left trails of cobwebs from and to our genre. Why let go of a writer who consistently proved an ability to bring home the Horror bacon?

And is it because she started writing about Literary issues before we fully accepted that as a blatant, fully stated goal in Horror? Or was it the issue she chose?

We have to start asking these questions seriously in the genre. Accepting such writings does not make us an LGBT genre. But it does create a necessary subgenre… I mean, if we are going to be really serious about this Literary thing…Because even Literary Critics are – you know, those stuffy snobs we believed for so long were trapped in a Shakespearean tomb? Even THEY caught on… and they are the engine on the Literature train.

T3

The Rise of Queer Theory: Can We Get There From Here & Why It Matters

Ok. So the subject matter is discomfiting for many. Imagine if you will what it is to live it.

This is why Queer Theory is one of the newest of the New Literary Critical Theories…because it is an actual issue with actual human consequences and casualties; it is the newest twist on our understanding of the human condition. But what is it exactly?

Queer Theory is specifically derivative of women’s studies, gender studies, and LGBT studies. The subsequent origination of what is called Queer Theory is a “new” Literary Critical theory created in the 1990’s to analyze LGBT (or “queer”) Literature – because it goes further and in different directions than its cosmic twin, Feminist Theory. It is called Queer to identify that the area of Literary Criticism dealing with Queer fiction which includes all LGBT concerns. It looks at the cultural and societal and religious roles played in affecting the LGBT population, and all areas of its suppression involving characters, behavior, plot lines or themes. But is it also about the indistinct borderlands in which many of us live.

Tanith Lee was one of our first Horror authors to get there, and to decide it should in some way inform her fiction because it affected her:

“Lee was asked about her recurring theme of ambiguous sexuality. She told the Innsmouth Free Press blog, ‘I think ambiguity intrigues me generally. Not just the hard-drawn line between male and female heterosexuality and lesbian/gay desire, which hard line may waver in the most staunch of the ‘straight’ or the ‘homosexual’ — but the shadings between wickedness and normality, evil and the divine. The state of human life and the god or demon within. The constant internal war that being alive can conjure.’” (https://www.advocate.com/obituaries/2015/05/26/remembering-tanith-lee-celebrated-author-queer-science-fiction )

Wickedness and morality. Evil and the divine. Gods and demons. What part of Horror don’t we get?

But of course this new recognition by Critics does not guarantee either popular acceptance, nor that of publishers and editors. In fact, we see a rise of territoriality happening – perhaps some of it genuinely with good intent to protect the integrity of some genres. However, we also need to see the forest for the trees. The existence of an LGBT character – even as protagonist – does not make that story exclusively Queer Fiction. It may be also Queer Fiction. But what if it is also Horror or another genre?

Answer: then it is a subgenre.

Why is that so hard? If the emphasis is so Literary, so unquestionably about the experience of being LGBT, then the overarching and dominant character of the work is LGBT Fiction. But just LGBT characters? Characters wrestling with issues while frolicking with monsters? A way to twist plot or extort confusion? No!

We have maniacs in hockey masks and folk who like carving up lost teenagers for sausage in our genre repertoire. Never once have I heard these described as “suspense” or “thriller” or “psychological” fiction…Is that because it is all gratuitous and two dimensional? Why is cannibalism ok, but an LGBT character a direct sentence to Queer fiction, an expulsion from our genre and many others?

I think sometimes we are not capable of seeing patterns and hierarchy, happy to export any writing with a gender question into its safely contained, separate-but-equal “Literary” box… Just like we do with writers of color, because God knows it happens with other minority-voiced works, which suddenly become “Literary concerns” instead of Horror because “their audience is too small, too niche,” too burdened with social accoutrement…

Again: that is subgenre. But it may still well be Horror.

Why are we jettisoning perfectly good, Literary writers to Theory-driven categories?

Why, indeed, when we are demanding writers master Literary-worthy Craft? Then dinging those who actually dive into Literary issues?

Is our Establishment actually willing to say that if a story has “too much” Literary content, is too “controversial,” that is cannot be Horror? That therefore…pardon me… Horror is not Literature after all, if it “has to” include LGBT issues, race issues, women’s issues, or class issues? That acceptable Horror is contingent upon acceptable norms?

Is that REALLY what you are saying real Horror is? Then aren’t you ALSO saying Poe and Lovecraft were wrong and Literary Critics got it right the first time? And to be Horror is to be hack?

Because if our genre is not willing to grow with our population and its changes and cultural spurts, then its death is inevitable.

Our profiled fan base is shrinking, because the rest of the population is growing on without us.

T4

Still Tanith, After All This Time

Horror is a big genre.

Every once in a while a trend will be born and flower and awe us all. Like the Weird (of which Tanith Lee was once generally considered a writer), those creative bursts humble every one of us – living on in immortality to torment writers and editors and haunt Critics. But they truly are just a burst of light.

We have to learn to let go. We have to be willing to look elsewhere for the next Poe or Lovecraft, for the next creative cluster, probably currently rejected if history is any indication. We cannot abide that. Our genre is not so deep in foundational authors and works that we should allow the ostracism to continue.

What happened with Tanith Lee could be debated, what with all of the Horrors we have been drowning in since Amazon rose from its industry-killing ooze.

But we should not ignore the obvious: the very real possibility that we are afraid of real Literature reframing our genre, that we fear one theory or one issue will rise up to hijack our future and change our audience the way we seem to feel everything we cared about in the world has been changed.

But isn’t that progress? Didn’t we tell all of the minorities and cultures we swept out of our way that in order to flourish ourselves?

Why not then as a genre? Why not go there in American Horror? In British Horror? In world Horror?

When exactly are we ready to shed the mask?

T5

Alas, sexuality remains different, somehow more personally threatening.

“Faces Under Water is an alchemical supernatural thriller, set in a parallel Venice about 1701. Its hero is a very enraged and lost young man who is, in a way, acting as a detective in this water-girt city, and he comes across the most bizarre alchemical plot. In the midst of this is a beautiful woman who suffers from something which we have in our world: her face can’t move. She can’t show any expression, and she can’t talk. She can’t even blink or close her eyes. It happens at a time of Carnival, when everyone wears a mask – but her face is the mask...” (Tanith Lee) http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

Is that the real reason we hide behind Lovecraft? Are we afraid of what moving on means in our tiny primal minds? Are we taking it personally? Running away when we should be embracing the variety of voices? The new monsters? The forgotten folklores? The old gods?

As scary as change is, stagnation is terminal. Are we ready to say “better dead than subgenres”? Do we really think we can stuff the genie back in the bottle? Clearly even stodgy Literary Critics could see the answer to that one…

Thank Cthulhu for Tanith Lee. We have proof that we once ventured out on that very Literary limb…before we got all paranoid and banished her to – of all things – Literature.

Writers like Tanith Lee represent gateway writers in a genre – ones whose work leads to even more exploration of topics or plots or character… to potential growth in new directions.

I believe Tanith Lee performed that function in Horror, her control of “ambiguities” leading us to try and then fully embrace a writer like Anne Rice (with her assortment of religious crises, amorous male vampires, erotica and adventures in B&D sex clubs), and then later to “forgive” a Clive Barker whatever imagined sin we previously ascribed to him…to accept a Gerald’s Game for the sake of the Horror…

I believe that Tanith Lee deserves a place in our canon as it becomes established, that Literary Critics need to bookmark her works for serious analysis as foundational for the 1970s and 1980s work in our genre. I hope that they will remember her when they go building our canon.

Tanith Lee planted seeds. And I can hear them growing.

Don’t you want to see the blooms?

T6

References

Gidney, Craig. “Tanith Lee: Channeling Queer Authors.” LambdaLiterary, September 13, 2010 as retrieved 1/9/2019 from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/09/13/tanith-lee-queer-authors/

Flood, Allison.“World of fantasy: Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.” Alison Flood’s world of fantasy

Books , Fri 27 Aug 2010 06.05 EDT, as retrieved 1/9/2019 from

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/27/fantasy-death-master-tanith-lee 

“Tanith Lee: Love & Death & Publishers” excerpted from Locus Magazine, April 1998), as retrieved //10/2019 from http://www.locusmag.com/1998/Issues/04/Lee.html

 

 

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Late-Breaking, Horror-Shaking News: Editor Paula Guran Inches Toward Retirement


If you don’t know who Paua Guran is, you aren’t reading enough Horror…

Guran has been one of the three major contemporary editorial contributors to the genre, most recognized for her excellent work on the Prime Books annual “Best of ” collection, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, but also for her prolific work on countless anthologies that for decades have served up some of the more interesting and innovative Horror anthologies – often with a delicious side of Dark Fantasy and fairy tale influence.

She is, by far, my favorite American Horror editor. And in times when it is increasingly hard to get our hands on British Horror, her collections have offered a complimentary creative contrast to Ellen Datlow, whose influence continues to showcase better constructed Horror with Literary inclinations, but without that feel of adventure. Guran has been the “heart” of the genre, going for the emotional center.

In her latest annual Best collection for 2018—her forty fifth anthology – she announces in the About the Editor note that “after more than a decade of full-time editing, she’s now freelancing..” having downsized her life and her work to more relaxed levels with “mixed feelings.” (Year’s 511)

She is not alone in those feelings… American Horror is taking a hit.

And I have one thing to say:

Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!

G1

Say It Isn’t So…

The rise of the anthology in Horror fiction has done several very important things: it has provided a forum not unlike early Horror magazines in which readers have a chance to “discover” writers they could not find anywhere else, to “discover” new writers in the genre, and to get a feel for what Horror writers are writing about. But they also have provided a unique opportunity to understand what the field of editing is all about – not the sweat and grit of proof-reading or slush-pile skiing, but the kind of work editors used to do – back when they discovered writers and nurtured them a bit, guiding them into other publishing and awards territory – in essence, contributing to the genre an editorial style – not so much as a star-maker, but as a representative of chosen stories, subgenres, and “accent”…

In the Olden Days, readers read books curated by certain editors. Editors had fan-bases. We seem to have lost that connection with editors. And it is a shame.

Datlow, I think, will always be underestimated by readers for the work she has done for the genre – because her anthologies carry less obvious “voice” and because of her own preference for what I see as literary artistry. But Guran will be equally obviously missed for the solid sense of presence and voice in her selections. Where Datlow to me represents refined technique, Guran is just plain fun. With Datlow, I see something of the intended editorial future of the genre; with Guran I see the pulp roots of yesteryear bleeding through. Between them both, we had a fine balancing act doling out tradition and inspiring different aspects of our Horror future.

Now it feels like the wheels are coming off…

We are losing a highly representative voice of “accessible” and “achievable” Horror goals, leaving some of us to feel we are being refined right out of our own genre.

G3

Guran has been around the genre for some time…quietly rattling the cages of some pretty awesome beasts. According to http://paulaguran.com/about/:

“In an earlier life she produced DarkEcho, a weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others, for over six years (1994-2001) and was recognized with two unprecedented back-to-back Bram Stoker Awards for Nonfiction from the Horror Writers Association (1998 and 1999) as well as an International Horror Guild Award (1999) and a World Fantasy nomination (1997). She began producing the horror portion of the pioneering professional Web publication OMNI Online in 1996 and became the Literature Editor of Universal Studios’ HorrorOnline in October 1998. (Many of the now-outdated interviews, articles, and reviews she produced from 1995-2006 are archived on DarkEcho website—which she will, someday, cleanup and sort out—she hopes.)”

Do you realize what an awesome resume that is? All before she became the Senior Editor for Prime Books…

Yet there is more to Guran’s impact upon the Horror genre.

Ultimately, a major part of her legacy-in-progress will be her own contribution to the “shading” and gender-blending of Horror. She has been integral along with Datlow in the decisive attempt to bring more diversity to the ranks of published authors. Between the two of them, we see far more women being published and being awarded in the genre, far more minority voices, helping to eradicate that myth that only white males write great Horror.

But we have so much farther to go… I hope Guran has an understudy…. somewhere out there…

Someone who will rise in the genre to become the kind of editor she has been – one with eyes in the back of her head and at least one of them focused sharply on the future.

But editing is not something that publishers seem interested in grooming. They seem product-focused, not genre-focused… seeking what sells, not what shapes.

And our educational system is conducting itself in very similar ways. Editing tends to be one course in all of the university writing or classics undergraduate major courses, too-often about nonfiction, and it often isn’t required. No one talks about how to edit fiction. No one teaches it. No one really writes about it.

In fact, the only way one can learn it is by teaching oneself – reading other writers’ work, reading how-to’s written for writers on how to “fix” flawed fiction, reading essays on the emotional and etheric experience of editing. Nothing is out there offering a blow-by-blow instruction or introduction. And there are just not enough established and reputable publications out there who will hire an editor-wannabe for the purpose of mentoring into a powerhouse editor of a single genre.

This is slipshod and irresponsible. And it is all we have. The field of editing has become crowded with MFA folk who know no more about editing than I do, who are also writers who would rather be writing than editing, who “fall into” editing opportunities without any particular credentials or training, and often who appear to be some kind of network hire, a “connected” person instead of a proven editorial savant.

How can we get great editors if we are treating them the same way we are treating writers in our genre? Staring out over an open field of wildflowers with a glassy-eyed shrug, and deciding to judge only those who make it into a special-delivered vase on our desk?

We need editors who are trained….Like it needs to be its own DEGREE…. supported by study in classic Literature, Literary Criticism, and training in Craft.

We also need more flexibility in how academics look at the genres. Sure, genre writing is rarely Literary. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be capably executed or that its editors should not be very well-read in the genre they intend to edit.

Between training writers and training editors in mechanical basics and academic Criticism in and around the foundation of Classic Literature – how can we help but grow a few Literary writers and better readers? How can we miss creating better editors who create better books, which create better sales and better Publishers?

G2

Eclectic is Good. And It is Necessary.

As much as an editor like Datlow is to be appreciated, editors like Paula Guran become beloved. The only predictable thing in her anthologies is the unpredictable… There will be tales that are offbeat, unique in protagonist or setting… clear roots to the better traditions of Horror no matter how campy or Literary. And that is important.

Eclectic is good.

Eclectic is necessary.

And we cannot let our Establishment ever forget that, because in the rush to Literary style we have started to lose some serious essence.

It has often felt as though in our genre we are so focused on elevating our Craft, of impressing dead Literary Critics that we are totally forgetting the fan out there – the reader of Horror who wants some fun along with that technique, who wants more than anything to be scared – if only for a moment.

Everything in Horror does not have to be perfect.

Perfection is what we aspire to…It is for the Poes and Lovecrafts among us… even if those unknown writers are outside the field of current favoritism, as Poe and Lovecraft once were.

We cannot and should not denigrate writers of lesser genre fiction – those reckless storytellers of urban myth and trite, overused plots, nor those writers whose voices speak from outside our comfortable norm. From those places we might just see a writer take off on jets of inspiration and innovation. And it is those writers who need to read the work of other chance-takers. It is those writers who need to feel the recoil when the patterns of poor technique or overdone plots become obvious – but like with new and would-be editors – who can’t if they don’t read enough of all of that lesser-regarded writing for creative comparison to the Greats of the genre – past, present, or future…

This is what an editor like Guran offers: diversity from the roots up: from who is writing to what is being written about…

For example, in the 2018 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are works and writers such as  “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a Pueblo/African American Writer…”The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson, African American writer, “Little Digs” by Lisa L. Hannett, Australian National Science Fiction Award Winner…”Moon, and Memory, and Muchness” by Katherine Vaz, a Portuguese- American writer. This is genre diversity long over-due.

Guran’s anthologies remind me of the old Weekly Readers we used to get in elementary school – along with the book selections at the end that shaped the reading I do today. Her work is that “box of chocolates”… in no way the “Best” of Horror as much as it is the Year’s Great Horror Stories… Tales to inspire, to unsettle, to tease…

I slipped into a funk when I read Paula Guran’s note about pulling back from her editorial proliference… Now what will I do? I thought….maybe I should go back and collect the anthologies I missed that she edited… prolong the withdrawal a little longer…

I realize she is still working… at reduced volume, at reduced pace…

But I think this is a canary -in- the-coal-mine moment for Horror…

We need to do something, because how long we have Datlow is another pending question….And then what?

What, Horror gods, will we do to stop the editorial hemorrhaging? Because great editors are as rare as great writers: they deserve discovery and mentoring… They deserve educating.

How do we fix this without making an actual effort to do so? And how do we look our fans in the eye if we just stand around blowing up inflatable monsters instead of making a decisive effort to properly seat our genre at the academic table at just the moment when Literary Critics are beginning their work to define and establish our genre as the legitimate Literary entity we have all long known it is?

Paula Guran is scooching toward retirement. Fans like me are screaming into pillows. We better do something…before we lose everything we have worked for…

We better start caring about how great editors are made. Because I know we have other editors editing out there, but we all come with expiration dates. And for fans like me, they will never be Paula Guran.

 

G4

“Interested in writing and/or editing? Here’s a link to a unique Editors’ Roundtable that features general and specific comments on a promising story from some of the most respected editors in the field: Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Liz Gorinsky, James Patrick Kelly, Nick Mamatas, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams.” http://paulaguran.com/

 

 

You Can’t See Creepy With a Cellphone Light: Guilt & Shadows in American Horror


American Horror. It’s become this great, terrible disappointment.

What used to set my imagination on fire is now a non sequitur, a discombobulated mess of unrealized terrors.

I am bummed.

That realization started with the attempt to watch a movie in a movie theater not so long ago… A simple task, one which turned out to be a farce in a room full of bobbing silhouettes, a lot of explosions from nearby theater screens, and scores of cellphones – like fireflies – punctuating the darkness that was supposed to have monsters in it.

Imagine my Horror when the stars of the movie produced their own cellphones , holding them out like crucifixes to ward off the darkness of their haunted house. No wonder it took so long to find something scary. When the worst that can happen is no signal or a deficit of bars… well, the Horror just doesn’t get a foothold.

Today’s biggest fear: Not being able to text a buddy or access your Facebook profile.

How does a Horror writer work with that?

And if we are facing a future Renaissance, how do we “tap” into the important stuff – you know – to make American Horror more American? And Horrifying?

Cre1

 https://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3223252/stop-being-a-victim-you-can-stop-cell-phone-use-in-theaters/

 

It’s Under the Bed

It seems to me we’ve managed to lose – or maybe just misplace – a few important Horror tools in our rush to be “civilized”… I mean, whatever happened to worrying about going to Hell, or Hell coming after you personally? About footsteps behind you, whispers from no one, eyes in the dark, cold air in the summer time?

We have cheapened our monsters in American Horror…They are expected guests, too often late to the party, overdressed, and so glossy they risk flirtatious comparison to better monsters once constrained in zippers…We have conditioned ourselves, desensitized ourselves, and routinely dismiss the edgiest of new creatures because name-dropping is how we roll. But the best terrors have always been the simple, personal ones…

Whatever happened to real ghosts… the kind that aren’t really a serial killer, or a psychotic break, or evil stepmothers, a disguise for the worst possible witch EVER, or the disconnected, secular demon with one of two names?

Man, I miss ghosts… the really great ones that weren’t CG drawn, or implied by empty rooms with swinging light fixtures.

Whatever happened to real monsters… the kind that have tentacles and hide in weird, inconvenient places? Not the ones that are really an alien invasion, or a cut-and-paste frenzy of amalgamated, unexplained and resurrected traditional monsters, not another nuclear accident or escaped virus… But real dine-on-your-guts, eats-you-while-you’re-alive monsters? The kind that dropped out of our ancestral imaginations to stalk us through dark forests and black nights?

Man, I miss monsters….the kind that single us out of the herd and hunt in plain sight, or pull us under the bed by our ankles.

Isn’t it just a little bit sad that we are unwilling to put down the technology long enough to be scared? (“No, scare me with my cellphone – in case Fame and Fortune calls…”)

Well as a Horror writer here’s my theory: you’re too chicken to put the cellphone down. Sophisticated audience my sagging butt…You can’t even sit in a dark theater without a light in your hand. Oooo…Big Brave Modern Person waving a phone screen around a haunted house daring the ghost to show itself…

You want to see a ghost? Turn off the lights, dummy.

This is why British Horror works (listen up, I’m going to spill their secret): Technology may be present, but it doesn’t work where the monsters are.

That’s right. Monsters only live in that place between cellphone towers. When they are not inside them.

Call it atmosphere, call it obsession with an antiquated past. Go ahead and accuse them of exploiting their rich abundance of creepy ruins. But the British get it right on the most important score: they are going to isolate you long before the monster comes…they are going to give you a sweeping moor so you can see it coming…they are going to tell you WHY you DESERVE it.

(Sure, I probably should just go on and move to England. But they wouldn’t like me there: I have a funny accent.)

Really, American Horror writers have no excuse. We create new ruins daily. Just because we call them blight, or strip malls, or White Flight changes nothing. And they are loaded with all kinds of socially-dysfunctional atmosphere. We build them everywhere…on our own graveyards, on Native American graveyards, on Grandma’s house that some large corporation spent years of litigation forcing her out of just so a shopping center could sit empty on the spot.

We have slaughtered our own wilderness…riddling it nonthreatening Bambi-like animals and exclusive, gated neighborhoods that tend to get devoured by large wildfires, and lots of ATV trails…cause, you know, the forests belong to everyone…We leave islands of non-native trees and call them forests. We shoot wildlife that wanders into our neighborhoods fearing they will eat our children in revenge for depriving them of natural food and habitat. We expect manicured and managed grounds to keep the tigers and lions and scavengers at bay.

We avoid religion at all costs. We pronounce ourselves atheists or agnostics or some new species of Christian… all of whom remain mysteriously and miraculously unaffected by the doings of the Underworld, death, and its untidy accoutrement.

So why do we have the audacity to complain when “nothing” scares us?

I say it is an act. I say it indicates just how very scared we are…with the lights ON.

 

Cre2

https://www.beyondsciencetv.com/2017/07/25/the-mysterious-shadow-people/

Guilt: the Equal Opportunity Shadow Person

I find it interesting, this sudden manifestation of “shadow people” in all things Horror. But in truth, if we refuse to turn out the lights, what real recourse does any self-respecting ghost or monster actually have?

When we look at Horror – really LOOK at it – chances are what we are seeing is our own fears manifest. It’s what has made Horror not only a great genre, but a universal one.

We share fear as former prey animals, because before we built SUVs and McMansions, we slept in trees and under bushes where job success meant staying alive another day. And even though we are living lives that typically mask those memories with overnight delivery and beds we still find need to elevate ever higher off the ground, we dread the impersonal death we all face and which might just be watching us from the closet, its claws and tentacles retracted but still visible underneath that pile of clothes…

But for modern humanity that fear has taken on yet another dimension and indistinct origin – guilt. Sometimes it is collective guilt – the sense that we as human beings could have conducted ourselves better. But more often it is personal – the sense that just because an ancestor was not held to the scales of Justice, or that what we ourselves did to a coworker went unremarked – an avenging angel awaits our one moment of inattention. Like any delinquent child, we manipulate and lie and deny all things that might bring the sword down on our own heads. Yet deep down, we know justice will not be denied, and we fear the manner in which it will come for us.

The Shadow Man is the perfect manifestation of an equalizer. Shadows are by definition both part of and separate from us, featureless, colorless, yet sinister and representative of a primal terror of things come from above to end us.

How many toddlers run screaming from their first glance of their own shadow? How many creatures subconsciously duck when one moves overhead? It is perhaps why we look up so often, dreading to see God seeing us…knowing we are flawed creations, destined for sin, careening toward judgment, knowing we deserve whatever the Creator chooses for us.

We cannot escape our shadow: it goes everywhere with us, even when total light or total dark obliterates its image. And we watch it, mesmerized by its mimicry of our every move. It is because predators hide in shadows that we do not trust our own.

And so it is a logical next step to exaggerate our fears by giving shadows a life of their own – even liberating our own to take vengeance upon us.

It doesn’t matter that some deny guilt altogether, rejecting their place in human events if not their own lives and actions.

Monsters can see in the dark.

 

Cre3

http://archcity.media/2017/03/02/judgement-zone-vol-1/

Saving Ourselves

We still have just enough religion left in our souls to suspect there are consequences for everything, and to everything we will be held accountable. It makes sense; most religions tell us the Creator left us “in charge” of the planet and all life on it.

We are not free to point at failed leaders or flawed icons. The responsibility is absolute.

Yet we rebel. We point at each other, or dismiss the crimes if we cannot bury them or rewrite them out of existence. And so what is left if not our shadows?

It does not surprise me that Shadow People are the newest monster to enter the Horror pantheon. The more global we become, the more likely our sins against one another will rise to the surface. That they remain close, disguised as faceless imitations of ourselves is not surprising. We cannot go anywhere – not the White House, not Hollywood, not Mars – without our sins following us. Like shadows.

And perhaps it is all about frustration in the simple execution of justice that makes Shadow People so popular a phenomenon. There are so many, after all, who seem to get away with unforgivably much, without any sign of justice descending.

For that we need our demons to part the veil and savage the world. We need the sense that if the Creator won’t do it, then something darker will. And we relish the thought.

Yet we also worry about our own culpability. This is why so much Horror is written: we struggle with the parsing out of judgment. We ponder the Great Biblical Flood, and the realization that only one family was spared, deemed worthy of salvation. We suspect our own hands are not clean, and hope we can fool our final judge with tilted halo and angelic smile.

Guilt is why we light every corner. It is why we suspect every shadow.

Cre4

https://www.ghostlyactivities.com/dreaming-ghosts-monsters/

Dissembling, Disassembling & Dissociating

Horror has for some time now, embraced the overpopulation of monsters in its stories. One is never enough – especially in the United States. But worse than that, the monsters take shape and then are dismantled and reshaped and denied and then made into something else less paranormal, less religiously centered, and more psychological so they can be properly slain.

We are completely unable to commit. We hide among masks and monsters we prove to be not what they appeared, performing creative gymnastics to compartmentalize the guilt that summoned them.

I have long wondered why one really good, complete, storied monster is not enough in contemporary American Horror.

I have watched us build creatures that like Legos are deconstructed and reconstructed to the point that we lose interest in why they are there at all, until the subtext is so subverted and mangled that it comes as no surprise Literary Critics say that as writers we don’t “get” it.

But I think they are wrong: we “get” it, we just don’t understand the strength and responsibility it takes to wield it…to face ourselves. In the dark. Surrounded by shadows…

I confess that as a writer I have struggled with this power. In this time of conformity, it is easy to edit the monster right out of the Horror and the Horror out of the monster. In attempting to follow the long laundry list of what makes good writing and good monsters, we often find we have lost the slimy beasts themselves. We wake up to reread the revision and find we have written that same unsatisfactory story we hate in the theater.

Horror is elusive with too many people in your head…

And with so many examples foisted in front of us that are just wrong, how do we start to get it right? How do we readjust our monster-making machinery?

Perhaps first, we need the monster out of the shadows – just for a quick look, a quick confession.

Monsters are not the climactic answer, the tah dah! … Monsters are vehicles for expressing the subtext of guilt, of Justice Due.

To find them we most certainly have to be willing to turn out the lights…to experience the sounds of something unseen prowling about, weighing our souls. We have to embrace the fear.

That means we have to acknowledge the very act that causes the guilt…

The need to push that away, to deny we were even at that party is not good enough. Denial makes the monster bigger.

Yet we have adopted the convention that our characters must NOT – no matter what – acknowledge the monster “because it gives them power over us…”

How many times have you heard that?

How many times was it wrong?

Ghosts walk because of something we did. Denied in Life, they will not be denied in Death. Ignore them at your own peril…

Ghosts follow because it is you who must set things right when it is perhaps not you but your kind who owes the debt.

Shadows are ghosts freed from the haunted house. It is their nature to follow you. Everywhere. Even when you cannot or refuse to see them. Like your sins.

There is no elixir. No amulet. No exorcism. There is only an increasing demand for Justice denied.

Why don’t we just turn out the lights and face it? One has to wonder where our Literature is in these trying times, when we are otherwise being forced to acknowledge our failings and our stand up for our values and beliefs. Human ethical trials are, after all, where the world’s greatest Literature comes from…

Where is our Great American Horror of this era? It is lurking in an uncertain future, waiting for its writers to start seeing in the dark…

I personally think it is in that dark theater, its audience loaded down with cellphones, complaining that nothing is scary anymore, that Horror is a ripoff. I think it is in the denial that we have anything to do with anyone else’s suffering on this planet. I think it is the desperate hope that we can lie our way out of being devoured alive by the monsters we have created.

I think we should all turn out the lights and see.

Cre5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKUcW2uyYUc

The Future of Horror: Will You Be There For the Renaissance?


For those who might have noticed the strange and mysterious “disappearance” of Horror titles currently missing from American bookshelves…Might there be cause for worry?

Even in big box stores that formerly carried at least The Best Of series of Horror anthologies (edited respectively by Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, and Stephen Jones), there appears to be a growing availability desert.

Sure, they can be ordered online. But what has happened to carrying at least those titles in major bookstores (titles, by the way, which always sold copies)? Where are our new authors? Our old, established authors? Why are we constantly seeing reconfigurations of the same authors and stories? What are they doing to our genre?

For many, there is the sensation that the future is bleak. Has the genre fallen on hard times, or are we being gaslighted into oblivion? Are Horror fans still out there, and what can we do as writers to try to bring things back to better sales plateaus?

The truth is that Horror as a genre is reinventing itself. And that means the real question is not are fans and new writers out there, but will you be part of the Renaissance?

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Masks of the Internet

One issue we are dealing with in our genre is the problem of the Internet. That’s right – problem.

Today’s internet control of Literature is like going into your local library and finding everything dumped on the floor. The only thing anyone tells you is that it is in the heap…somewhere.

While too many people are proud to say this type of availability puts everyone for the first time on equal footing, it also makes a mess that is overwhelming to navigate. Expecting the average reader to have the patience to sort through all of the possible titles and an army of unknown names as authors or editors is just too much. Never mind the issue of quality in Craft as well as production.

We need the kind of categorization that came with the thousands of years of development shaped by libraries, the kind of reviews that come from average folks that used to be employed by newspapers to rate or recommend new publications, the kind of analytical criticisms that come from actual Literary Critics, and the word of your local bookseller who knows what is selling and what is not.

All of these are being erased by Amazon and its shoppers. So for those still “using” the knowledge provided by libraries and brick and mortar stores to make online purchases, get ready. Your secret weapons are being eliminated. Prices are going up, selection is going down, and nobody knows or cares what you know or spend precious money on.

So go ahead. Wave your phone in my face and tell me how my job is soon to be extinct because my company won’t price match. I can’t wait when you get to pay new, higher prices because Amazon has you over the barrel…

The examples of what is to come are already out there.

It is far too easy to make books look totally awesome that are absolute crap.

Here is a for-instance: I recently bought a not-so-cheap Print-on-Demand book about navigating the “basics” of one of the Adobe suite programs….But instead of an introduction to that program, it was a hundred-page recitation of what you find on the box…system requirements, et al…

Talk about nerve. And if this kind of thing happens enough times, readers will stop buying books off the Internet. Justifiably. They will stop trusting us as writers.

So what can we do? How do we find Horror and keep our genre going in these hard times?

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For one thing, we need to keep up with our editors.

It really doesn’t matter if you like an editor’s choices and/or selections of authors or stories. What matters is that these are “considered” The Best….

As a reader, you need to see what that is to see if you agree or disagree with the assessment. And if you disagree, you need to support other, different authors. If you agree, you need to look up those authors’ other works and give them a whirl. As a writer, you need to know what has been done, what strikes you as overdone, and what inspires you to do something completely different.

You cannot know if you are a rebel if you don’t know the norm…

Know the norm. Know the editors. Know their styles. And either get with their program or write your own. But read them. Read them regularly… They aren’t who they are for no reason…

The other thing you can do is to try other publications, other anthologies, other editors. They are out there, although in increasingly smaller, more irregularly published numbers. They do have a habit of disappearing frequently, of reinventing, of staggered publication schedules. But if you do not purchase them, they cannot survive.

And try the offerings of small, independent publishers.

Horror is still more of a red-haired stepchild than its own powerful genre for many publishers, and all of that bruhaha about this being a Golden Age of Horror really does pertain mostly to film. As for print and Horror fiction in general, there is evidence of trying to stuff Horror into other genres like Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Thrillers. Mention of Horror tends to be an afterthought, not the leading marketing angle.

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And the sad thing is this is all the doing of publishers trying to rebrand our genre as everything else, as though to hide its wolfish nature amongst the sheep is a good thing…

We have writers – many of them from that Golden Decade of the 1980s and the Real Golden Age of the 1950s – whose works are still out there being read often because they are being recycled... But it would appear that the general consensus is that we are not at this time writing very compelling Horror fiction. And some of those “older” writers used to be proud Horror writers…until something ugly happened and they were sidelined by publishers who shied away from midlist sales figures and potentially controversial prose if not controversial writers. And then until something uglier happened and someone started bleeding off our writers claiming they wrote other types of fiction instead of a “purer” kind of Horror.

You didn’t know there was classism in our genre? Well, there is in fact…

But the good news is that along with the sweeping (and often detrimental changes) the internet has brought to our genre the opportunity for coup.

You see it is the fans of Horror who decide what Horror is and will become.

Fans decide with their wallets.

When I see more pulp, more comics, more graphic novels selling in our genre than the Best Of anthologies, I see revelation.

When I see classic authors outselling everyone but Stephen King, I see revelation.

When I see Stephen King carrying our modern genre, I see revelation.

The revelation is: you can lead a horse to water or a pulp fan to Literature, but you cannot make him or her drink.

And if a fan does not understand Literature, chances are, there is no incentive to drink more than once.

In other words, we as a genre – our Establishment – is doing a piss poor job of marketing the reinvention of Horror. We are not exclusively Literary, nor should we be. We have to love the whole child. And what better source of inspiration is there but pulp? Graphic Art? Fine Art? Comics? Summer blockbusters?

That is what is selling…

Horror is a fun genre as well as a heavy one. One end feeds off of the other.

Our Renaissance cannot exclude our pulp roots, or demand an explanationless manifestation of Literature because we are not (yet) robots.

Our Renaissance is destined to be a marriage of the two. Opposites attract. Sparks make fire.

We are as writers being presented with one “acceptable” track of creation, and that is in itself stifling.

If we want to “see publication” then we must conform to demand.

How ugly is that?

As a fan, if you want to know where your genre is, it is out here – with you – in the cold, wet rain. Writers are writing in rebellion. But we have few places to go to show you, unless we want to “give it away” and we cannot afford that.

We are seeking markets. Making markets. Trying to decide how we can navigate the world between the hammer-strokes of Amazon.

Your genre is reinventing itself, therefore it is being forced to hide its unpalatable gyrations, its shape-changing behind internet masks – lest it bring shame to the Establishment.

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But it is out there. Graphic novels, comics, pulp… its audience is loyal. It sticks together and whispers about new plots, new characters, new writers, new artists….Not so much general Horror fiction.

But in their loyalty to King, we see their preferences…the need for accessibility in fiction. As writers we are trying to get there. We are writing stories nobody wants to pay for, but may in fact be good Horror. We support King, read King, and will always have a special place in our creative hearts for his work. He (in all likelihood) inspired multiple generations to become writers if not lifelong Horror fans.

Yet we need more.

We need variety to keep on growing. We can’t all write pulp, or Literature, or Kinglike books.

But we can be inspired by them, and that is how genres grow.

Fut5

The Way Forward is Dark

One of the reasons we are having trouble selling our Horror fiction (besides the obvious obliteration of markets and reduction of publishers and editors) is that we are all not looking in the right place OR for the right things.

Like it or not, this is the era of attempted Literary Horror…and not because editors and Critics want it, but because the world we live in right now is presenting us with Horrors the likes of which only George Orwell, Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison imagined.

From this decade we will either see the rise of some of the greatest Literature of our modern times, or the end of it. Because all of us are being affected down to the molecules of our day-to-day lives. We cannot escape or ignore truths any more than Dickens or Dostoevsky. And the fear, the fury, the moral outrage is coursing through our creative veins, coloring our monsters and our plots, dragging us into dystopian scenarios, making real the rest of the world in ways the rest of the world has only dreamed of.

Every day we are waking up in a universe created by Bosch.

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Every day, the garden of earthly delights becomes less and less attainable… replaced by the promise of man’s inhumanity to man.

Climbing up out of that hellish, all-encompassing vision is difficult. For artists and writers who are prone to so much psychic noise and psychological sound waves, the experience can be overwhelming….suffocating….and sometimes liberating…

Literature and Fine Art is born of this angst, this disgust and this Horror.

This means that a lot of writers are either writing about Potteresque young wizards or drowning in creative milieus of powerful emotion, struggling to get it down on the page and tucked neatly into story.

But they are OUT there…struggling to the surface for air. Keep looking for them; they are looking for you…

The transformation from trying to figure out what editors want and whether a story is one story or a trilogy has evaporated into how to bring the Horror to the foreground, how to make Horror scary again when Real Life seems to outpace anything we can imagine.

This is a creative challenge.

And like our fanbase in the genre, we are struggling to navigate each day, pay the bills, digest each new oppressive threat by politics that seem hellbent on creating dictatorship by promising various, construed bases changes won’t adversely affect them but only those they do not like….all while pushing plots and experimenting with characters and scenarios that often feel as surreal as Science Fiction or Fantasy because real life is mimicking it.

It is a tall order. But one I assure you your genre writers are up to…And I have seen the evidence personally. Right now what we are lacking most is that over-the-edge push…the one thing that horrifies absolutely the way a King novel horrifies, because the Horror is real… It is because we are struggling to learn the Craft we are not being taught while creating what we hope are sound concepts executed the way we want…

It takes work. Practice. Mastery.

It takes Renaissance.

And we cannot let ourselves go numb and mute. We have to say exactly what we mean. We have to not-care what others will think. We have to be willing to write outside of the Establishment’s dictates or preferences, and understand getting found in a confusing mass of titles is going to be a challenge unlike few others.

It’s going to take raw determination by our writers.

It’s going to take blind faith.

And as a writer I feel it coming.

As a bookseller I still see fans looking for new Horror.

This tells me it isn’t over – our genre is far from done.

In fact, I believe it tells me we are just getting started. And once we find a way to get it out there – as a genre – as a collective….then I think we will see new sales. New fans. New writers.

Whether we are The Best or not.

Some of us are content to place our immortality in the hands of our readers. Because that is where it belongs. Out there. In the dark.

Coercion & Conformity in Horror: When the Stakes Go Through the Heart


I have a confession to make: I stopped submitting work to Horror markets years ago.

Oddly, it wasn’t about rejection – or rather, it was, but not in the way you might think.

I stopped because just reading various submission guidelines and editorial rants made by what are supposed to be professional publications and publishers absolutely pissed me off.

And this got me thinking: just how many other Horror writers have had it with submitting their work to three-year-olds?

And if other such writers are out there, not-submitting their work, how do we really know that the true best Horror stories are being told?

How do we know which way the threads of the genre are being pulled?

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“This Isn’t for Us”

I can’t vouch for other English-speaking countries, but there is something insidious afoot in the United States fiction market. With the loss of so many Old and Traditional Publishing Houses, the loss of so many quality editors, so many midlist authors, and so very much print, our fiction in all genres has bottlenecked at the river Homogeny.

No one seems to know what they want (other than an author who can make a lot of people rich at the same time and as quickly as possible). No one seems able to actually use words to express real parameters, no one seems to be able to define criteria succinctly and professionally and free of insane clown tantrums.

Everywhere is the stench of a new conformity – one that suggests that the genres are dead and classification generally useless, and another one that blurs the lines of genre requirements as though the publications themselves don’t know them.

Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas of study. We are so desperate to please a Horror editor – any Horror editor – that we overlook the absence of academic expertise and allow for the belief that because someone has a title of editor, they know what they are doing.

But there is no real school for Horror editors to graduate from. There are few jobs to get on-the-job training or mentorship.

And if we are relying on our educational system to provide guidance for and the birthing of new editors (Horror editors notwithstanding), then we are living in a house of illusions. Just as with creative writers, our educational system has redirected its focus to getting graduates employed in what amounts to “vocational” jobs – graphic arts, commercial art, copywriting, technical writing, technical editing, (and sometimes) a watered down version of Journalism.

How can anyone discover the next Lovecraft or King if editors and publishers are not educated in the literal and Literary history of the genre? If starmakers can’t recognize a rip-off of Poe or appreciate the rich soil of Pulp?

Says Steven Saus in his essay “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas: Making Speculative Fiction Speculative” (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, New York: Penguin, c2014): “Over the last decade the hard bright lines of genre have disappeared. You can lay the blame on the reduction of actual physical bookstores, literary cross-genre courageousness, or the alignment of planets – but the effect is real…The labels sci-fi, horror, and fantasy have shifted and blurred so that it is difficult to tell where the lines are anymore…” (3)

Why this is may indeed be evidence of growth in storytelling ability, simultaneously arising alongside what is most probably a healthy trend toward better Craft and technique often associated with the Literary. But it may also be why New Horror doesn’t sell as well as Classic Horror.

In the editorial quest for originality and more writers who cut their genre teeth on the voluminous writings of the 1950s to the 1980’s, we have indeed seen some concepts of originality take wing – concepts that seem to lead out of genre and into the nothingness; into the massive pool of general fiction. According to Donald Maass in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling, “Today, genre-bending and blending is more the rule than the exception…” something which is contributing to what he calls “the death of genre” and the emergence of hard-to-classify authors. (11)

Much of this seems to be author-driven, according to Maass, who states “the first question I get in pitch sessions at writers’ conferences is, ‘What category am I?’ When I respond with the question, ‘Where do you think your readers will look for you in a physical bookstore?’ the answer is often a shrug. ‘I just write the stuff.’ [And] while that answer can be a cop-out, it may also express a genuine indifference to traditional category borders…” (11)

Or, it could be a cop-out.

As a writer I know I feel confused about this type of author. How could you not know?

Of course, maybe this perspective stems from my years working as a library cataloguer – where characteristics of a story suggested the place where the bulk of fans would find it, and additional subject headings would ensure a bit of cross-pollination for readers seeking new authors or writings that touched their reading preferences.

But personally, I feel it comes from loving story, and a story type – a genre. It comes from years of joyous reading in that genre, and cross-pollinating it with other genre’s stories that carried elements of my preferred genre. That is where the desire to become a writer should emerge – from the seed of what has gone before, not the desire to just write and be rich… to “just write the stuff” which screams a literary ignorance that is both shocking and disrespectful of literary tradition – let alone Horror tradition.

It makes me want to take names and not waste my time or money on writers with such a cavalier, superior attitude.

Because if a writer doesn’t care enough to know where his or her story is coming from, the motivation is all wrong. The “I wrote it, you fix it and make me a star” attitude is one I have read editors complaining about. And perhaps that has contributed to the Rant Guideline.

But there is absolutely no justification for what is clearly becoming an attempt to make writers conform to nongenre story. Out there in the Real World of Old Publishers and New Writing, there is a pressure to write to a new specification – one that makes an unpublished or under-published writer feel more like a pawn than a star.

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When you write Horror and read in submission guidelines that your story cannot be about vampires or wizards or “like Stephen King” yet that is exactly what is being published, you have to wonder what the heck is being solicited. And when they go further and state things like: “no serial killers, no tales about survival of child molestation, no ghost stories, no post-apocalypse…” we have begun to enter the territory of censorship – not only in what you will or will not write in order to get published, but what readers will or will not find published by traditional publishers…and therefore professionally endorsed.

While it is an admitted function of a qualified editor to contribute to the shaping of the contemporary genre, it is not their function to gatekeep what type of stories are being published – the quality and choices colored by their own preferences should be the only visible, moving parts. And that should be tempered by having many editors of many tastes.

In this not-so-brave new world of homogenizing genre so that it becomes (miraculously) “literature” we are also showing our blatant disregard for the study of Literature AND genre, as well as RESPECT for Literary Critics. We are all on the same side, even when our preferences are separated by creative divides.

Publications are arising from nowhere and everywhere. They are dropping young editors in at the helm thinking that only young people know what other young (and therefore potentially higher earners with deeper pockets) people want. They seem to think parking behinds in MFA classes is enough to build knowledgeable editors in the genres…that their presence may ensure the “elevating” of genre to the Literary. Yet anyone who researches MFA’s will find the old school mindset that allows writers not to write. To come to class if they choose (i.e., we have your money, we don’t care). They don’t have to be there. If they are not in the mood. If they cannot get inspired. BUT THEY COLLECT A DEGREE.

Seriously? THESE are the people the Establishment plans to put in charge of new writers without MFAs? If a writer is that temperamental, they need academic guidance in how to get past it, in how to subvert blocks and produce writing. How else can they know how to guide actual writers who hit rough patches while under contract?

And what do we know about their editing skills and education? Editing fiction is a long-term investment in study – both as a glorified copy and content editor, and as an expert in all that has gone before, and as a knowledgeable representative of Craft. That means there should be education in Craft specific to genre as well as Literature. I haven’t seen that on curriculums. I see teaching creative writing classes…the ABC’s not the in-depth detail of mechanics which new writers WILL BE rejected for because they haven’t mastered them…

And these are again, the new editors who hold the Golden Ticket for finding positions in traditional and nontraditional publication acquisition offices.

This should disturb you. It disturbs me…Because there is indeed a learning curve for new editors. And it is not about understanding grammar. It is about having extensive, hard-won knowledge in the area one is hired to edit.

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But there is also evidence that both publishers and editors in our genre are also operating on the fact of our own collective ignorance, believing that any “good” story can make a mint and do so without vetting it in the genre history because no one really reads anymore, no one really reads genre old authors, no one really reads Literature anyway, so our editors don’t need the knowledge because today’s consumers won’t be the wiser…

This is irresponsible. And it is destroying our genre – not because Horror cannot withstand an elevation to Literary styles, but because ALL GENRES have bloodlines. And without them, writers are indeed just writing “stuff.”

If there is one thing I can say in defense of having only two American editors of Horror who came from our storied, traditional past, it is that at least these ladies know the genre inside and out. They know the history and what has been done and overdone. They know good writing technique and good storytelling. They may be inclined to accept or reject based additionally on personal preferences, but they have earned the right to do so, and at least publish qualified writers in the genre – whether the rest of us like the stories or not is actually not relevant.

But it is damning when the editing stops there in our genre…when the historical tradition of Horror writing is being ignored if not denigrated everywhere else, by what appear to be unqualified editors… The kind who rant about submissions…

And writers who just “write the stuff.”

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Drive a Stake Through My Heart

This has really got to stop. And I think the only way it can is for Horror writers who KNOW they write Horror to take charge of their own writing. To demand or create new publications and publishing houses, to write whatever they darned well please, and to self-educate in the traditions of both the genre and Literature.

It makes me wish the Horror Writers Association was a bit more inclusive, more of a leader. And perhaps, more of a rabble-rouser, a defender of all of our genre efforts.

As it stands, they seem to represent just one more layer of posing and imposing by their membership requirements and allocation of awards – defining authoritatively just who will be who in the genre. This means they are dictating what direction they want the genre to grow in. And it is not that they don’t sometimes have good ideas. It is that genres grow in the direction of unfettered writing.

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We seem in this country to have put the cart before the horse. We seem determined to dictate an American style which weirdly denigrates genre by homogenizing and re-categorizing it.

It is almost as if someone is on an ego trip, secretly planning to become THE editor who makes the genre what it will be in the future…a Svengali, a magician, the power behind the throne to lead us out of the darkness…

Except we ARE the darkness. We like it in here.

As a writer I do not care if this or that publication or editor doesn’t like this or that type of writing or story. I care that those publications are held up as the only acceptable qualifiers for Horror writers to claim on their resumes.

Punishment for deviation is swift and harsh. Self-publish, or indie publish at your own risk. Publish in an “unauthorized, unapproved” publication and you have marked yourself as some kind of unqualified degenerate bent on destroying the genre.

But I can tell you I don’t “get” this tendency to maintain an exclusive club.

In my travels I have seen quite capable writers of Horror who are shut out. They have, apparently, committed some sin. And they are, however, quite good if not very promising. I can’t help but think there are indeed readers out there who would like to be reading them right now…Yet we are – all of us, readers and writers alike – separated by this wall composed of New Editors, Establishment Editors, and fewer and fewer accessible publications.

When I complain about this, Establishment editors seem to roll their eyes and list the same few publications as the solution to my “problem.” But this just proves to me that they don’t “get it.” Whether as a submitting writer or a reader, I want to walk into my book store and find three or four pulpy magazines done just for the joy of publishing Horror.

And there are consequences to not-having these types of publications.

How do we know what direction the genre is growing in if we are not reading all of the writers who write IN the genre?

I mean pulp AND Literary… Lovecraft was pulp once. So was Poe.

How can we be sure we haven’t silenced the Next Big Thing in Horror because they are now working at McDonalds for having written a story that “isn’t for us”?

How can we complain about quality when we as a genre we are doing NOTHING to ensure that writers are nurtured and trained in the art of writing – in Craft, history, and Literature, in genre? In comics, graphic novels, and pulp?

And what IS this seemingly endorsed new trend to guide writers to write for Hollywood? To create stories that are written with the rules of screenwriting so IF they are any good there won’t be too much work to repurpose novels to screenplays?

And we expect to get LITERATURE from that? Really?

Only in America.

Thank God for the British. They seem to care too much for the genre to let the poison in…

And then I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the suggestion to submit to publications that are not American. Maybe as an American writer I want to submit nationally…

Again. REALLY?

We can’t manage to have actual publications that print Horror in this country? And you are whining about the lack of diversity in the genre? About originality? Maybe we are all too busy writing to spec for the three publications that will accept our submission on a Thursday in March, for three minutes, to do something about it. Then again, maybe some of us are writing different stories. Surreptitiously. On the sly. Without permission.

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Maybe we WANT to write like Stephen King. Or about vampires. Or wizards.

Maybe we DON’T want censors in our heads.

One has to wonder why not only are we being told what not to write, but that such is coming with the blessings of our own Establishment.

What is the motivation here? Are they just ignorant? Or complicit?

The declassification of Horror and re-dissemination of our works and authors into other genres is nothing short of assassination of our genre.

The floating of rumors that our fan-base no longer reads Horror or buys Horror is only so true insofar as they cannot FIND Horror. Or diverse Horror. Or new Horror. Or Horror writers. Or BOOKS IN PRINT.

Then to be rejected – but with the eye-opening caveat that Horror has become like Children’s picture books , itself a category that accepts only a few new authors per year and favors established authors, classic authors, and celebrities – is beyond enraging. Not because of jealousy, but because of the knowledge that this small, exclusive club of writers does not include the bulk of new genre writing.

It doesn’t include the future of the genre…but it guarantees a certain homogenization…a funneling of creativity into pigeonholes.

How do we know what is out there? What might transform the genre next? And why the heck doesn’t someone in charge of the nurturing and protection of the genre in this country CARE?

Something terrible is happening in our genre in the United States. And you don’t get to blame unpublished writers for this one. Or the Horror fan-base, many of whom have fled to Manga, Dark Fantasy, comics, and graphic novels to fill the void. God bless them for doing so – for they are saving Horror artists in the process…

I firmly believe those of us locked out of the current system need to stick together. Whether we are struggling with Craft or toying with stories, writing in more than one genre or exclusive to Horror… we need to ensure our own place in the history of this new genesis. We need to take back our genre.

We need to reject these attempts to drive a stake through our hearts, to censure the stories we want to tell.

There is no room for Vampire killers and prima donnas not wearing nighties in Horror…

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References

Maass, Donald. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012.

Saus, Steven. “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas? Making Speculative Fiction Speculative.” Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Laurie Lamson, ed. New York: Penguin, c2014.

 

 

Reading Like a Writer: Horror Through Slime-Covered Glasses


There are many reasons to read a great Horror novel: to scare yourself, to scare your parents, or to scare your teachers. But there is one reason that – if you write – you might not have considered: Reading great Horror novels can teach you how to write great Horror.

Seemed obvious, didn’t it?

So why doesn’t “just” reading a great Horror novel beget great writing?

The answer is: there are different ways to read fiction; you can read as the intended audience, you can read as a Critic, and you can read as a writer. And if you don’t understand the difference, you can’t put the writerly gifts hidden in Classic Horror to work.

Reading as the intended audience is easy. You pick up the book and let it take you someplace else; this is entertainment in its purest form and all control is relinquished to the author’s storytelling wiles. There is no commitment beyond the pursuit of enjoyment.

Reading as the Critic is much darker, much more motivated, colored by academic analysis: it is technical, and it is over most of our heads, requiring a great deal of preparation, such as a Classical Literature background, and an understanding of linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and history. Most of us don’t naturally go there and do not want to: it is cold, hard work that seems intent on destroying the innocent bliss of reading for fun.

On the other hand, reading as a writer is a weird marriage of the two. It is at once dependent on enjoying what you read, and then wanting to dissect it in order to understand what made you want to keep reading and what made its afterimage stay in your head. Reading as a writer is all about asking yourself how and why and when another writer managed to get it “right”… it is about studying their technique for the purpose of creating your own.

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YES. READING IS TECHNICAL AND SOMETIMES ICKY

Yet for many people – writers included – it never occurs to them to read something differently.

This is in part because we don’t know how. It also doesn’t occur to us to go beyond the pondering of the magic which appears to be involved in the writing of good Horror. We tend to not want to take it apart, to look behind the curtain because it is the magic that we love to savor.

We are, at heart, a superstitious lot…

It doesn’t help that reading as a physical act quickly becomes so automatic that we are not even aware that we are performing a complex brain activity. We seem to “glimpse” a word and it magically forms images in our minds…effortlessly….mystically.

We curl up someplace snug, we open our book, and wait to be enchanted. We don’t think of reading as work, because as we grow into being readers it becomes wickedly instinctive, unconscious – even involuntary….like magic. Words take on a life of their own, threading their way through our imaginations. We begin to visualize. We become engaged in the tale. Soon, we aren’t even aware that we are reading because the story simply and spontaneously unfolds…

As writers we are looking for clues when we read.

And reading as a writer means that you will have to adapt your reading technique; you are no longer seeking entertainment alone – no longer the one being wooed. Instead, you must become a shadow Critic, poking and prodding everything from the sentence structure to characterization, from punctuation to plot, from the outside in.

To do this successfully, a couple of things must happen first:

  • You must read the book for thrills
  • You must understand what you are looking for

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https://frankenreads.org/event/frankenstein-book-discussion/.

THRILL SEEKING ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

Chances are, if you write Horror, you love Horror. This means you can’t read a word of a new story or novel and not get caught up in it. Of course, that is what every author hopes for, so it is not altogether a bad thing. But it is distracting. Your imagination latches on to the prose like a face-hugging alien – pupils dilate and the pleasure centers of the brain light up like Frankenstein’s monster.

It is important, then, to read a tale first for the enjoyment – to get that habitual and natural pursuit of happiness out of the way. It does serve a purpose: you will know exactly when and where that sweet spot of being hooked and being Horrified took place.

Sometimes it even begets your own monsters, new story ideas, or creates a nice, fertile mood for drafting or brainstorming. But reading for pleasure is not reading as a writer, and it should not be mistaken for such.

Reading for pleasure is that something else: a spinning of the channels of the imagination, a hope of hooking up with a really great idea or being swept away by one.

Yet for writers of Horror fiction, sometimes even reading for pleasure can go awry because if you write Horror, you also come to wonder how it was exactly that a given story scared you… and you eventually might come to be distracted by the fact. This is especially true if you re-read the story years later, when phrases like “What was I thinking?” enter the mind because you read parts you don’t remember and you can’t find parts you thought you did read…

“What happened to the Horror?” you might ask. And exactly how did the writer cause us to manufacture details that were implied but not actually there?

This, friends and neighbors, is where Horror goes all Brain Science…

Two things are at work here:

  • the writer’s technique,
  • and the curious effect emotion has on human memory.

Of course, emotion is not exclusive to Horror; but Horror is – as Lovecraft so accurately pointed out – fear’s first cousin. And fear is one of the most potent emotions because of its ability to hijack the brain and create memories where none previously existed.

When we experience fear, we process it according to our own experiences, and the reconciliation of the emotion with existing memory tends to reshape the new memory as colored by the old. So when we read Horror for the first time or for enjoyment, we are surrendering our brains to the puppet-master of emotion. The monster in the dark becomes more or less sinister based on what we read and what associations we make with it.

So during our teen years, when we fear the ending of the world before we grow up and realize our lives, the monster that threatens this scenario has more scare power than the same monster will when we are at midlife or older, when we are wont to rationalize, minimalize, and offer concessions – even to monsters. While the monster lurking in the closet has more “terror cred” if the reader has ever been or imagined being attacked in their home, the threat of possession by demons more intimate if one is a lapsed Catholic with residual guilt, how much Horror is delivered to a reader totally depends on the reader’s own experiences and learned fear management.

Horror, it seems, is very personal.

So how does the writer tap into that formula that makes a specific fear generalized?

Well, we are going to have to look at technique…and it is as elusive as it is desirable. And we are going to have to admit that not all Horror will scare all people at the same time; in fact historically, much Classic Horror scared its period audiences because of how those stories related to what was happening at the time. If we are able to associate the Horror with something contemporary, the story will still scare us. This means it has to be a Horror that is bigger than the monster – the monster has to represent something bigger.

The bad news is that such success is a bit of a crap shoot.

The writer must be able to gather that perfect storm of what is most likely to scare the bulk of readers in a specific target group at a specific time and for a specific reason, the exact amount of disclosure in when, where and how to reveal the monster, and the strange magic of storytelling.

The first point means a writer must really know his or her audience and not from afar – readers will sniff out the fakers and pretenders — and to actually understand and anticipate what his or her contemporaries really fear the most in life. The second means developing a kind of sixth sense about how to pull back the curtain without shouting “ta-dah!” and flattening the curve of your climax. The third means a writer must connect to that preternatural rhythm of prose that says exactly what it needs to and no more.

And it is the second and third of those ingredients that writers can learn from doing what readers love most – reading.

But there is of course a potentially fatal flaw imbedded in every writer (reading or otherwise)…a kind of subliminal kill-switch

And the glitch is this: very few writers are Masters of Their Domain – once again, most writers are readers and read as readers first. We are addicts of prose – both our own and random words printed on pages. We can’t stop ourselves from seeking the “high” so we might as well admit it; we really do have to read a good book first as a reader. We become as dazzled and bewitched as a fairy with a Celtic knot.

Then and only then can we go back and hope resolve to read as a writer. (And if you think I am kidding, go back and read your own writing – something old that you have forgotten. You won’t fixate on the bad parts that need fixing, but you will congratulate yourself on getting the good parts handled right. Sick, isn’t it?)

We are no different with a Classic writer’s writing; we embrace and stroke the beastly prose that made us feel what we wanted. We excuse any parts we did not understand or disliked. And most of all, we let how the writer set us up slip right past us.

This is why we have to go dark. We have to use the Critic’s lens…those slime-covered glasses that dissect what we hold most sacred.

 

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Illustration by Gustave Dore (1832 to 1883). http://wordyenglish.com/p/little_red_riding_hood.html

ALONE WITH THE CRITIC

For most of us, our only exposure to Literary Critics and analytic assessment of writing is both boring and negative. Critics are, after all (and to our knowledge), the ones who rip our favorite authors apart and insult our intelligence by stating outright that we don’t have any. They are the wolves in the sheep pen…

But what we don’t see is that the Critic means we are forever reading as readers and telling them that enjoyment means everything. Critics want more. And if you remember high school, so did your teacher. And then your professor. So why didn’t you get it? Could it be that no one ever really taught you about the many ways of reading?

The bad news is that it is perfectly possible.

For years we are asked to analyze what we read without being shown how to see words acting differently on the page…And for many of us caught in the passions of youth, we don’t want to….we aren’t emotionally ready yet.

But doing so – learning to read the same words, the same stories differently – is what helps us develop the ability to find and judge truth, to understand the use of metaphor and analogy, to separate polemic from satire. Try looking at our current internet, fake-news (which used to be called propaganda by the way), social media-led world, and NOW you see the importance of that talent…

So it was no illusion…education has always placed heavy emphasis on interpreting and deciphering prose. And all of those term papers, research papers, and required reading were about that. Yet education has never been graceful about teaching the details…because education has failed to show us the complete picture of how and why. Instead, it has served to embitter most of us about the critical process.

It made us feel stupid.

Worse, educators are great for coming up with ways to analyze writing, for some ruining the enjoyment of the Classics. And while this is a real fear for those needing to read like writers, and something that does in fact happen to some people, it does more so to those who are closet editors. If once learning how to look at language means you cannot turn it off, then you must face it: you are an academic, an editor, or a Critic. Get thee thou education and do not pass go. Be happy. Follow your obsessive bliss…because all genres need you.

However learning to approach reading academically and as a critical thinker is an important thing.

Reading as a writer is one of those irreplaceable tools every writer needs to master, and one I’d never really heard expressed as a technique before my return to the college classroom. In fact, if I had heard it in any guise before, I probably dismissed it as a cutesy way of inflating the ego. But this is a serious technique, and here’s why: especially within the United States educational system, not everyone reads enough “good” fiction or “Literature” to develop a subliminal sense of how to mimic the different elements that made those works great.

I know I have been guilty of such neglect. I always wanted to read the Classics. But for some reason, unless someone made me it didn’t seem to happen. I always felt intimidated by their greatness, I suppose, figuring that because they were such a source of study, discussion and Criticism that I would not ever fully understand them and I didn’t want to appear even more stupid.

But that is a cheap excuse. Books are books after all, written for readers. Yet I was plagued by the mystery so many modern readers are: what make a book great? What makes literature the Holy Grail of writing?

Unfortunately, it is not as mysterious and awesome as it sounds; it has more to do with the ability of a writer to accidentally or on purpose say something bigger than is stated in the story, while dazzling the reader with the competent and artistic handling of language.

This does in fact mean that some books are Literature but which are unrecognized as such – at least they are not yet. But it also means that we need to look at prose the way we’ve learned to look at poetry: it can be read for simple enjoyment, or it can be dissected and impress language technicians with double-meaning, allegory, metaphor, analogy and pure genius. The level to which you as a reader or you as a writer wish to enjoy fiction is up to you. But being willing to get down and dirty with the dissection business (something Horror writers and readers should be familiar with) can open amazing windows to understanding how great fiction is constructed.

So to learn how to write better Horror fiction, we have to do what engineers do: we have to deconstruct prose to see how the pieces came together and rendered success.

As Francine Prose (ironically surnamed as she is) states in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, you have to discover how to read analytically: to become “conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information conveyed, how the writer structures a plot, creates characters, employs detail and dialogue” because writing “is done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time” (3).

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One of the best ways to do this is to sit down with your favorite book or short story, and start copying it word for word. This slows you down, forcing you to notice every phrase, sentence and punctuation mark. It reveals how you were manipulated by the rhythm of the author’s own choices, why you as a reader gave emphasis to certain passages, were susceptible to others. You notice vocabulary choices, perspective, the intimacy or distance gained by wording and grammatical emphasis. These are your tools – your paints, your canvas, your textures, your lighting. This is the writer’s version of art school.

And because you are also a writer, chances are there is already a bit of the academic in you… As such, you have merely to access that natural curiosity about “memory. Symbol. Pattern. [because] These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.” (Foster xxvii)

Since writing is the creation of patterns, reading is the logical reverse engineering of them.

Like art, writing is all indeed about patterns – everything from plot (of which there are various estimates as to the actual number of available “master plots” from two to twenty or more) to motifs and themes. Decoding these patterns is like deciphering a riddle the author consciously or subconsciously embedded in the text ( Prose 4-5)…

This is what close reading is all about. For example, Prose recounts and old English teacher’s assignment to read King Lear and Oedipus Rex and “Circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness and vision… Then draw some conclusion” upon which to write an essay (4). This is where Literature tends to stand out: these hidden gems lie awaiting discovery and assessment. Literature then, invites the reader back into the text multiple times, to explore potential meanings and relevances, to form opinions and make discussions.

Fiction today is really not much different. We just don’t feel as free to criticize, fearing offense or even attack by fans of the author, if not the author… Yet this is what is meant to happen to fiction. It is meant to be discussed and re-read, and even judged. That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy, or that criticism is just or warranted every time. But unless you write in a vacuum, readers will find you. And they will judge, each and every one. Doesn’t it make sense that writers would write with the intent of surviving that criticism?

The fact is everyone has an opinion, for good or ill, correct or not, graciously delivered or accompanied by obnoxious and illiterate venom.

As writers, we have to detach ourselves from our own work, allowing our “children” to grow up and go out into the cold, cruel world.

We must realize that they will be judged and sometimes justifiably found wanting, but that it is ok to love them anyway.

This is the way fiction becomes Literature, the way writers test and challenge themselves to become better writers, the way good Horror becomes great Horror.

Are you up to the challenge?

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References

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Simon & Schuster, c1940, 1972.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: a Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Harper Perennial, c2003, 2014.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, c2006

Scaring the Lit Out of Yourself: Making Good Horror From Bad Memories (World View Part 2)


When Horror writers think of Horror as Literature, we think foremost of Lovecraft; Lovecraft is so intimately and unequivocally ours…Unlike Poe, who having been repeatedly devoured by Critics of Olde (who in turn we resolutely believe did not “get” us), seems hopelessly ensnared in academic debate even as he rises as proof that Horror is indeed Literary. Lovecraft is accessible to our imaginations.

Lovecraft is indeed different. Lovecraft is us.

He is the traditionally rejected writer dedicated to his own vision of monsters. He is the rebellious outsider, the flawed character in his own story, a rich man made poor, a lonely man made so by his own inability to navigate society. He is the one who said, “I told you so,” the one who showed up his critics and enemies by outlasting them all, and becoming one of the foremost and most immortal of Horror writers. Lovecraft is our revenge upon all naysayers made real. He is our idol.. because he transcended all predictions and Criticisms of his time. For that, we love and adore him.

But what we tend to forget is how isolated, terror-filled, and haunted his life really was.

We forget he was extolled and emulated only after his death; instead we picture him happy and wealthy, when Lovecraft lived an opposite life of constant poverty and was tormented by his own tailored variety of demons. And those monstrosities were so real he not only wrote about them – he named them and gave them their own worlds as they relentlessly chased him through his. That he might well have been mentally ill is (for most of us) beside the point. Lovecraft represents the struggle of an exceptional writer to get his work perfected and published.

Lovecraft is a community triumph.

And while what Lovecraft wrote is now being identified as the highest form of Literary – replete with a Critic-adored World View, he once was indeed…us.  That this may provide a useful hint as to the technique we need to find and put to use is — for many of us — beside the point:  it irks us to be reminded of the truth, knowing how passionately we identify with pieces of his life as imagined by ourselves.

And so we do not understand how he performed the trick. Like any good bit of magic, we have missed the essence of the illusion by being distracted by that very illusion.

That Lovecraft might well have performed it by accident disturbs us. We are formula hunters…Pattern seekers. And we want a sure-fire, step-by-step instruction manual.

To get there, we have to recognize the secret of the Secret Sauce; World View is a consequence of personal experience.

And how you mine personal experience is encapsulated in two sentences of advice we have had drilled into our brains with absolutely no understanding of what was meant:

  • Find what scares you.
  • Write what you know.

It turns out that writing good Horror depends heavily upon your ability to turn bad memories into good story. It means –even if you are convinced you have neither baggage nor enough life experience – learning to scare the Literature out of yourself… Because if you are going to expose your World View, personal experience is your vocabulary.

 

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Finding What Scares You

In the search for World View, we must look for metaphors. What incidents in your life provide the necessary cover for Life’s Bigger Issues? Chances are, they are the smaller ones…

Yet we are easily overwhelmed by thinking in Literary terms. So it is often better to think in personal ones, and then stitch in the Literary reinforcements at some later point of revision. To do that, we can safely start by using the advice of common How-to tomes…

However, over-used phrases like “write about what scares you” and its near and necessary relative “write what you know” are too nonspecific. They leave a lot open to misinterpretation and we can spend long, lonely years toiling down primrose paths of flat, boring Horror.

But if you are going to write good Horror, you need to understand exactly what is meant by both phrases. There are inextricably linked. And they don’t mean what they sound like they mean: they mean precisely what they mean.

Sound confusing?

Good. That means you are already thinking about it.

When we are told to “find what scares us” in particular, we suddenly become surface dwellers. In essence, we fail to go deep enough into the ugly, emotionally scarred territory of our own subconscious because we spend our lives trying to minimize the damage other people keep trying to do to us and our fragile egos. It is not so easy to reverse course, to dig deep and poke our private humiliations and fears. In fact, it often takes multiple attempts, multiple drafts, and some incredible, hair-tearing moments to pull it off.

According to Charles Baxter in his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, subtext, or “the unspoken soul matter… that critical twilight zone… that landscape haunted by the unseen” (4) is the provenance of characters. And it is through the artful manipulation of “dramatic placement” that the hidden is revealed – but not just shown. Subtext is a potent revelation that must be deduced, felt, and infallibly honest… wherewhat is displayed evokes what is not displayed.” (3)

Sounds simple. But this is astoundingly complicated, especially for new writers who tend to grab onto Horror with both hands while minimizing their own world experience. Worse, we are often in love with the creative process. We wallow in the magic like cats in catnip.

For many of us, writing is an escape. It’s like going to the movies and sitting in a dark theater watching a personal showing of an unknown story unfold – this is true in particular if you are an organic writer. To interrupt that process of drafting and probe about for unsettling memories or associations can (in your own mind)  wreck the whole thing.

This is largely because being human we choose to insulate our emotional selves from eviscerating wounds. To get it out, we have to trick ourselves. We may have plethora of great and ugly experiences we expect to tap for our writing. But thinking about it is depressing, defeating. It is natural to think of those very personal horrors only in the quiet of your room, when the world is shut out and you feel marginally safe to play with razor sharp images. So we write in circles… in denial.

We create a story with vivid characters and wonderful setting and a plot that seems to lie flat on the page and never quite scares anyone much. We fail to engage our own warp engines…

Yet we all already instinctively know that the best Horror is buried deep: that is where the elevation of the story hides. And our own self-defense mechanisms are constantly plotting against our conscious selves to keep it there.

So when we are asked in public what really scares us – as in a writing class (or when our minds are in public-mode) – we tend to choose and reveal innocuous things that mark us as “one of the group” but not the one who is the most vulnerable. This is not by mistake; not only do we have the savage lessons of predator and prey to remind us of the importance of the safety of numbers, but we have the collective peer pressure of Modern Times…

Continues Baxter, “Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response – features associated with information glut and self-inflammation” (85) No one really wants to hear our pain, and we are endlessly encouraged to not-think about things we are led to believe we cannot change. It is therefore not so far a leap to burying our own unpleasantries.

This is normal in a world where such vulnerability is met with the most unimaginable cruelties. It means there is a problem with society. And there is your Literary entrance to Horror…

Horror is a unique genre. It is all about the ugly details of how we fail each other, exploit each other, and seek vengeance upon each other.

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Yet it is also a very personal genre. Every one of us is a little bit Lovecraft. A little bit King. A little bit Poe. It’s why their writing speaks to us. Why we identify with it, and feel the need to regurgitate our own mortifications.

It is also why it is okay to not be perfect, to have flaws, and to have suffered for them.

Alone in our rooms (even as adults), we often spend way too much time tending our personal terrors, agonizing over things we cannot change, doting anxiously over perceived missteps and mistakes, aghast at our own propensity for victimhood.

The paranoid dialogue is endless, overwhelming, and even debilitating at times. But when the suggestion is made to find what scares us, we think in cartoons; we use place holders like Vampires and scaly monsters in effigy…we ignore the list of darker memories, the unspeakable horrors that haunt our dreams and stalk our hopes and supplant it with lists of petty annoyances like dress codes and politics.

The two lists are indeed quite different, but they are related, and they may be both true. The petty list elicits chuckles or empathetic nods. But it is the first that makes everyone uncomfortable, because we can see ourselves reflected in the mirror like ghosts.

And it is the first list that is most often private. It is the one that circulates in your head and makes ulcers in your stomach. THAT is the one you need to go to…because that one is real. It doesn’t matter if it seems small by comparison to Other People’s troubles. If it haunts you…you are plagued by monsters.

Horror is all about profound truth.

But understand, it is not about confession. You don’t have to write a diary entry to write truth. You do not have to be graphic. You do not have to “out” the child molester in your family. You do not have to have a child molester in your family. But like friend Vampire, you need to draw the essence of the specific fear out to create a solid story around a real Horror.

You have to create resonance. So whether you are writing about a very real personal Horror or imagining one, you have to find the common ground shared by emotions…primal emotions.

Good news: Horror is all about emotions. We all have them. And we all know what is inferred when the right emotional buttons are pushed. You are unique; but what scares you is universal because we all share the same unspoken language of fear. Likewise, how something happened to you is unique. And when you write using those situations or their possibility, no one will ever know for sure if you are being biographical or just insightful and intuitive.

All you have to do if find those unique ways of combining words to summon the images of the monster: that is subtext in its elementary form, the lump of clay all stories start with. You already know how fear makes you feel – that is what is important and potent – everything else can (and probably should be) researched.

It is also where personal experience pushes out character and scene.

This is all Stephen King territory, by the way. King is absolutely tormented by what it is to be an awkward teenager: it clearly made an impression upon him which he cannot forget and which haunts him to this day. It’s why we love him: he gets it. He knows and writes about the awful dread of an acne outbreak right before the prom with your first real crush. He writes about social group rejection. About unrequited love. About how it feels to be bullied. About hating yourself at a time everyone else seems confident and gifted. And then he makes monsters who know exactly how to manipulate those fears.

But what you don’t see is that a whole repertoire of terror is right there in you right now… just waiting to be put to good use. Whether you are twelve or eighty, I guarantee you can dredge up the memories of your most horrible days. Contrary to every piece of adult advice, they do not go away. They live in effigy in your mind forever.

So you might as well put them to work.

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Writing What You Know

This little phrase is another snipe hunt novice writers are sent on.

We think we must wait to write then, until we have worked through our first “everything.” But it is not about some vast accumulation of life experiences. It is about empathy. About sentience.

So what if you want to write about a character who commits suicide? You can’t do that and live to tell the tale.

What if a character is an addict? Is the editor suggesting you should indulge before you can write “legitimately” about it?

Let’s be smart about this; of course not. So how do you write what you know?

For one thing, writing what you know means mining your own emotional reactions to personal experience and transferring THAT to your writing.

We all have unpleasantries in our lives, bad memories, embarassments, humiliations, things that went sideways. Nobody’s life is perfect…not really. Of course, maybe the Horror is that everyone thinks your life is perfect…

But in reality, it most certainly is not. Now, if only we as writers can tap into that…to drill down to the bone…

You know how it feels. So you must take how that feels and elevate it. Give those emotions and dreads and horrors to your characters, mask it just enough that there is room for the story itself…. story is biographical but NOT biography.

You can write about a horrible event, a tragic event, a true event – for example… but in order to reach other people at their core, it has to be about the reaction to the event…You must take all of your memories of how The Event marked and marred you, and season your story with those real memories and emotions…leaving just enough off that your reader must imagine the worst that comes after. You want the reader to discover what is happening…remember show-don’t-tell? Well here it is.

But here is the deal. You don’t have to have been there. You have only to be human enough to empathize, to be able to imagine the absolute horror of it.

For example, imagine how it must feel to accidentally kill a child with your car. The emotions are immediate, visceral…unforgiving. Most of us cannot even imagine how one could successfully move beyond that moment of pure hell.

So you don’t have to have actually been there. You can indeed write about anything, as long as you remember that out there –somewhere – someone already has lived it.

You need to care enough to get it right. That means – especially if you are young – you need a reader of your work that does indeed know something about the kind of tale you are trying to tell. Someone who can give you advice and let you know if you captured the reality of it or not. If you do not have the Life Experience required to be accurate in the telling of the tale, find someone who has. It’s not that difficult.

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But you also have an obligation to do as much as you can first.

Writing what you know is all about fear. Dread. Social blunders. Awkwardness. Vulnerability…That is something we all already know intimately...because of our very own personal past experience.

You have to dig deep. Mine those emotions and nightmares and reshape them in your characters.

That is writing what you know. Dragging the resonating fears out of us (your readers) is how you write good Horror. You must make your reader uncomfortable. And that means you must make yourself uncomfortable…to scare yourself, as Stephen King says.

And keep in mind that most of our genre’s most successful writers wrote their best as young people – before Life got in its licks, but emotion was king.

Sometimes great Horror is about the raw stuff we fear as young people and utilizing the brevity of youth to just say it…

But how far should you go?

The answer: as far as it takes.

Fear is never a “tah dah!” moment. It is a seedling.

It is a conclusion the reader makes… it is not a salacious moment of abhorrent adjectives. It is not cheap. The coin is very precious and you must spend it wisely. This means that much of the monster is never seen… just a claw here, a fang there, the drag-marks made by the victim.

The secret is you want the reader to imagine the worst and if you succeed in making that happen the worst will materialize right there in your writing… BETWEEN THE LINES. Unspoken. Unwritten…in subtext.

When you are successful, the reader will come away with chills, with a haunted memory of having read your story….not necessarily the details of it, but because you described it like you were there and you dragged the reader there.

Again, Stephen King. It’s why he is so successful at scaring us.

If you are going to write about the most horrifying thing in your life, it may be the best – or the worst – writing you will ever do. But don’t give up. Keep remolding the clay. Have you said too much? Too little? Used the wrong words? The wrong monster?

Did I tell you writing is hard?

Did I tell you writing is work?

Writing is also slow torture.

And Literary Critics look for that torture to last a lifetime of writing. Literary Critics look ultimately at a writer’s catalog of works, rummaging around in World View, looking for subtle changes in the writer and the life’s work the way they looked for World View itself in each individual work. They are looking for a kind of character arc – YOURS.

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The “why” comes as part of the sum total job that a Critic does: first they find a Literary work. And then they ask: was it a fluke? Or is the writer Literary?

Because we change as Life has its way with us, it is logical that our World View would change right along with us – either growing deeper and more resolute, or resulting in an epiphany of change. That is what the Critic needs (and hopes) to see over a writer’s lifetime. It is not what you as a writer construct, but what is constructed by the act of your writing.

So what if you are an older writer who is not exactly long on time? Then a Critic needs nuance…perhaps a revelation of those changes that have already happened by presenting good characterization and a passionately true depiction of those earlier views. Yet aging is no excuse: we most certainly do continue to change as we age. And that change will continue to inform your writing…if you remain honest.

Because writing is about the most personal, the most painful, the most outrageous emotions we contain and which subsequently rule and sabotage our subconscious, typically ruining everything that matters. It is all about extracting the pain that you have spent all those years trying to bury, to deny.

Writing is about life and death. Horror is about digging up the bodies.

But more importantly, Horror is all about you – the real you, the alone-in-the-room you.

And no one can tell the story that you will, as long as you write what scares you the most and write what you know. Because to showcase that lusted-after World View, you’re going to have to get personal. You’re going to have to scare the Lit out of yourself.

And nothing scares like honesty.

 

References

Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2007.

Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, c2014.