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


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

Has all of the Great Horror been written?

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

Why?

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

Welcome to the Age of Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Witches Spoil the Brew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who do we listen to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that why Cthulhu really waits?

 

References:

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

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

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

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

Unfurl the Eyestalks! (It’s Halloween — Do You Know Where Your Horror Is?)


Come the month of October, the human eye turns toward the shadows and wants to see its monsters lurking there. It’s a Halloween thing – this annual need to take our scary out for a nice stroll through the graveyards of our imaginations. It’s also why so much Horror is usually released in print and film during this month – producers and publishers know where our minds will be. And they are most happy to oblige.

But lately things have been….changing. Not so much Horror has been materializing during October. The unexpected reason for this is the homogenization of genre currently afoot…and homogenization is signaling a misleading loss of Horror sales.

Going Genre-less in a Genre-Driven Business

There is a movement to defrock genre – best explained by agent and author Donald Maas in his book, Writing  21st Century Fiction (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012): “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works…” (13) When a hot item turns into a subcategory (12) and the author into a “brand” (8) the question arises as to what real category does the book go into – genre, or not genre, mixed genre, or general fiction? – an answer the author, agent, and publisher seldom share. The result has been the crumbling of the old bookstore hierarchy of categorization (10)… Or, The loss of section and the intermingling of genre on the shelf.

And the alarming thing is they say it like the elimination of section was an answer to a problem many genres – including Horror – never had. When sales first fell flat, it was because the genre temporarily high-centered with slasher fiction in the 1980’s; that was followed by a series of economic recessions (large and small) that affected not only publisher costs – but Horror fan wallets. The reduction by publishers of the mid-list author stable and the subsequent result of less new Horror being published then, followed by the marketing decision to eliminate the section in most bookstores resulted in the illusion that Horror wasn’t being bought or written anymore. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy that lives on in general mythology today.

The myth could not be more wrong; Horror fans constantly ask for the Horror section. Yet Horror continues to languish on open-genre shelves like last year’s Easter eggs on the White House lawn. Make no mistake, this is an expensive problem, and the solution is not to hide more Horror at higher prices.

But Wait! POD and Limited Run Fiction – The Publisher’s Solution

The problem resulting from having so much unbought Horror fiction rotting on general fiction shelves has spawned unsavory consequences: higher prices, limited runs, and POD publishing.

The sad fact is, publishers have come up with a solution for the lesser success of contemporary Horror: printing a limited number of copies in more expensive constructs (typically hardcover and trade paperbacks) to hide in the stacks indistinct from their literary neighbors, and Print-on-Demand editions instead of remainders (when it is not printing limited numbers).

Gone are the days of cheap pulpy Horror in mass market mouthfuls. Because Horror must “fit in” with its new shelfmates, more of it is “classed up” at $15.95 and $26.95 than the more manageable $7.99.

But there is a consequence to trying to “trick” general fiction readers into buying Horror that the Horror fan doesn’t recognize: the established Horror fan (the one actually wanting the stuff) decides not to buy it if they stumble across it in the stacks. Horror fans are not typically rich, and most of us acknowledge a high pulp rate to the genre which is a fun read but is never desired in any format more expensive that one hour of minimum wage.

If publishers are trying to convince us that Horror writers are now more Literary by glamming up the format, it’s not working. When a Horror writer reaches classic status and becomes collectible, classier editions are welcome. But for new writers in particular…higher prices equal lost sales…no matter how many quotes from Stephen King get printed on the cover.

Limited runs speak for themselves. Less, in this computer age, is not more. Frequently by the time the Horror audience “discovers” them, titles are gone from brick-and-mortar stores. Because publishers seem convinced by their marketing departments that Horror isn’t selling, fewer titles are being published in lower numbers – to prevent a large accumulation of stock in warehouses. But paradoxically, today’s tech-savvy customers never go looking for it further than Amazon, if they go to Amazon. They don’t tend to order it. They don’t want to wait for it.

Horror fans want to browse, discover, and purchase their Horror right now. We are all about instant gratification in the bookstore.

Furthermore, just because titles don’t sell out doesn’t mean they might not be good sellers – if their audience could actually find them…if people had time to read them and chat them up on the sales floor before they went missing.

But this is not what is happening. What is happening, is an industry-wide default to POD “remainder” copies, if not an exclusively POD offering of Horror titles.

Print-on-Demand literally means exactly that – a customer orders it, pays for it, and it is printed up (on a machine much like an old, half-room-sized Canon copier) in a matter of minutes. Problem is, frequently too often not only is the title unknown, but the author is unknown and the publisher as well. This means the quality of the writing, editing, publisher and story is very much in question. And because the book still typically costs $14-15, plus shipping, the customer will walk rather than take the gamble.

Why? Because for most people, that is two hours of minimum wage work. As the economy gets harder on the economic classes that tend to read Horror, there is a whole lot less gambling going on. It simply isn’t affordable.

So once again genre fans are accused of not buying Horror, and some marketing person somewhere pronounces this as evidence that our genre –like other genres in their argument – is dead.

Again, I respectfully disagree.

How dare anyone plant Horror like readers want to go on a scavenger hunt and then claim no one buys Horror anymore – when we can’t find it to buy it?

How dare anyone take the book out of our sight and our hands, out of the grapevine, out of reviews, and expect healthy sales from a title left to rot online as POD?

Supposedly, this is all part of the same argument – that Horror (like other genres) has homogenized to the point of being pointless to categorize.

What a disservice to Horror writers and fans alike. Maas says, “For me, where genre ends and literature begins doesn’t matter” (13).

Doesn’t matter? Well let me take away your author and title list and send YOU out onto the bookstore floor or even the internet. Go ahead. Find Horror. Find IT ALL. Because if you can’t and find it fast, congratulations: you just lost the customer. Translation for agents and publishers: You just lost a SALE.

And to quote Mr. Maas once again, “Blending genres doesn’t bust a novelist free of genre boundaries. It can simply put one in a new box” (12).

So… what? We should go boxless? Yeah, I can see that being a big help when a customer wants “Horror” and we both stand there, gazing out over the multitude of bays holding thousands of book spines…

Not Your Grandad’s Halloween

Heck. It’s not even last year’s Halloween.

More and more Horror is just “publishing”…ignoring what time of year it is…perhaps in the hope that the Horror audience is just hungry enough for it (so now we’ve lost the Halloween Horror-publishing bonanza advantage).

But once again, we can’t find it. I work in a bookstore and I have trouble finding it.

There is not enough publicity for titles in our genre that we can discover an author and a title before it gets yanked off the shelf for low/no sales.

Worse, publishers are – in cost-cutting mode – not publishing unproven authors/titles often or in large number. So “when they are gone, they are gone…” sometimes within four to six months. Then someone whose job it is to make excuses for poor sales blames our attention spans, our ages, or a general lack of interest. These people need to think again.

Helpful hint reminder here: the average Horror fan is not in the top tax bracket. The average Horror fan has limited funds and visits the bookstore less often than preferred because of those limited funds. Four to six months may be how often the Horror fan washes ashore in search of a new book to read. If he or she zigs when publishers zag, we completely miss each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to find a book I recently read for a Horror customer only to discover there are less than five remaining in the warehouse, or it is gone completely.

Again. LOST SALE.

Or it has gone POD (Print-on-Demand) … another thing a customer is seldom comfortable with –especially if the author, the title, the publisher are unfamiliar. If they cannot hold it in their hands, read a few paragraphs to gage writer-capability, editorial standards, publishing quality – then they WALK AWAY.

Once again: LOST SALE Mr. Publisher. LOST.

Nobody tries to sell Horror like me, I guarantee it. I want my genre to flourish – with new readers and old. And as much as I respect Mr. King, and as much as he seems to be the whole entire Horror section these days, Stephen King should not be the only Horror section people can find.

NOTE TO PUBLISHERS: HELP US.

Stop with the blended genre thinking. Filing it in Literature doesn’t make it Literature. Ask a Critic.

Here’s the solution to sagging Horror sales:

  • Give us our section back!
  • Identify the book as Horror on the spine where we can see it.
  • Give us affordable pricing (not over $16.99)
  • And if you are going to publish Horror in hardback for a new author, don’t judge its potential success by hardcover sales. Horror fans tend to buy paperback first. (It’s a cost thing.) So don’t plan a hardcover and then ditch the release-to-paperback plan.

So in case you were wondering, it’s not your imagination. Horror is increasingly hard to find. This has less to do with the popularity of Horror than the lack of a Horror section. But we as Horror fans and writers have a lot of convincing of publishers to do. And it’s not going to be easy.

Let me try to help a bit. Here’s a list of some titles and authors to get you started this fine, Halloween season. If you don’t find them on the shelves, order them – they are well worth it. Some are old, some are new. Some are trans-genre. But don’t let that stop you. Horror needs to be found and celebrated. Grab your candy. Unfurl the eyestalks. You’re going to need them…

HORROR ACROSS THE GENRES (*= Glow in the dark covers!)

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

Asylum by John Harwood

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Ghost Writer by John Harwood

*Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Hyde by Daniel Levine

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Lady in Black by Susan Hill

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Nobody Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

Phantom by Susan Kay

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

The Silence by Tim Lebbon

Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Starter House by Sonja Condit

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde By Robert Louis Stevenson

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Norton Critical Edition)

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

ANTHOLOGIES

Blumhouse Book of Nightmares: the Haunted City by Jason Blum

Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahnuik

Probably Monsters by Ray Cluley

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

Best New Horror (any year and edited By Stephen Jones)

(Anything edited by Stephen Jones)

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (edited by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling and/or Paula Guran)

(Anything edited by Paula Guran)

Best Horror of the Year (any year and edited by Ellen Datlow)

(Anything edited by Ellen Datlow)

 

BOOKS ABOUT HORROR

The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction by Gerrold E. Hogle

Ghosts: a Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof by Roger Clarke

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

How to Write Horror Fiction by William Nolan

The Modern Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi

On Evil by Terry Eagleton

On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writer’s Association by the Horror Writers Association and Matt Castle

100 Best British Ghost Stories by Gillian Bennet

*Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

The Weird Tale by S.T. Joshi

CANON AUTHORS (generally accepted to BE canon)

Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, David Case, Robert Chambers, Guy de Maupassant, Dennis Etchison, M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions, Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, Edith Wharton.

 

CONTEMPORARY CANON-ELECT AUTHORS (generally assumed will be joining canon and/or actively debated)

Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Roald Dahl, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Hill, Stephen Graham Jones, Jack Ketchum, Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein, Dean Koontz, Tanith Lee, Bentley Little, Graham Masterton, Richard Matheson, Robert McCammon, H.H. Munro (Saki),Anne Rice, John Saul, Peter Straub. (Apologies for those who I might have missed.)

 

HORROR PUBLISHERS WITH TITLE CATALOGS

Chizine Publications http://chizinepub.com/titles

Prime Books http://www.prime-books.com/prime-books-catalog/

Arkham House Publishers http://www.arkhamhouse.com/authors.htm

Monsters in the Nude: Unzipping Better Horror Fiction


Sometimes I think the whole Horror genre has become like Godzilla: no matter how much CG we can muster, no matter how many explosions and special effects decorate the modern stuff, the best version was the absolute first – the one from 1956, starring Haruo Nakajima , AKA the guy in the 200 pound, unventilated Godzilla costume, stomping all of rubber Tokyo…

How is it that a monster with floppy feet and an exposed zipper has more cachet than most modern Horror fiction? What have the monsters of old got over today’s competitors?

Stripping Down

Call me crazy, but I believe it has to do with “originality.”

It’s become that dirty word we all dread… because it seems we are all aiming for it, but like drooling dogs to ringing bells we find ourselves mesmerized, repeating what’s already been done (and we know it’s true because we often read it ourselves, and we read it ourselves because it is successful).

Everyone buys into the mythology…even publishers. So why is the quickest route to rejection so relentlessly tempting?

It’s that darn “pablum” of Louisa May Alcott’s own words… that formula stuff everyone says everyone else wants an endless, brainless supply of… talk about your Horrors…yet we buy into (if not succumb to) these interminable repeat performances.

Some writers “handle” the problem by simply not reading other writers. They think if they don’t read it, it can’t color their imaginations. But this is often a much worse mistake in the end, because not only is writing is a long term investment of time and creative energy, it’s essence and ideas also tend to run in synchronistic packs. How horrible to spend years writing a book only to discover another writer has already cashed the check for it…

The Muse is a fickle, fickle girl. It doesn’t matter that your version is perhaps better…the frisson necessary for successful scaring in Horror has already been spent, the cigarette smoked.

It happened to me… imagine my own Horror to discover a freshly published version of my synchronistical-channeled tale by another, now-successful author… After meat-slapping the plot for years, having purchased and read more books on medieval French history than any Horror writer should ever have to… I can only gloat that it didn’t do particularly well. (Or perhaps there but for the Grace of God…)

Anyway…shaking it off…

A writer who wants to be genre-changing has to know what is being changed… And many an editor would be profoundly grateful for the effort; in fact, (surprisingly perhaps) many a Literary Critic is rooting for that exact scenario.

So it got me wondering: what has happened to us?

The answer appears to be that we are being herded that way…we are being coached – no, tasked – to find the next Big Thing among the rubber rubble.

The realization came just as Godzilla crested the horizon overlooking the city of Tokyo. I was watching one of the newer film versions and I couldn’t see the zipper anymore. And it got me thinking… what’s Godzilla got under that suit? Cuz if it ain’t a short Japanese actor, the thrill is gone.

And that means the zipper was crucial…it means the underlying truth is what propels the fiction…

(Ooooh…a Literary Moment, would you look at that…)

Clearly, to reanimate our fiction we need to unzip the monster. Reveal a truth. Let him run free – naked as the day he was born, innocent as a hippie at Woodstock.

Who drove our monsters from the Garden? Shamed them into wearing flawless CG suits? And WHY oh WHY do we try to write them this new way?

Today’s Horror fiction has this homogenized feel, like it is constructed of recycled, over-processed parts, weary conventions, and predictable plots. It’s like we keep writing the same stories over and over again – a crazed monster trying to claw its way out of a box.

“Welcome to genre writing,” perhaps some would say… But that is not it. That is not it at all.

Because occasionally I see examples of fresh Horror fiction where the monsters run unencumbered (Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters, Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter, Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s I Remember You)…

Works like these restore the faith. They are fresh air in an enclosed, rubber room. Read them and see what I mean. They suspend reality, take you on a tour of Tokyo, remind you to notice things…

There are so many of these fresh works out there…just sadly not classified in our genre…Nor are they promoted heavily…by anyone it seems. So allow me: Don’t wait for marketing machinery. Try new or unknown authors. Try these authors. Fresh fiction is a wake-up call that will set your own writing on fire. Atomic fire. Spewing-from-Godzilla’s-mouth fire…

The best part is when you read something fresh, it loosens the fetters on your own mind. Each one of these titles I mentioned reminded me that good Horror comes from taking the mundane and commonplace and seeing it differently…Honestly. Naked.

It’s like wearing Top Secret X-ray monster-seeing glasses. Or like looking through a hole in a fairy stone…

Yet today we seem hell-bent on writing for an audience we let others specifically conjure, and not the one that is out there waiting for our stories.

Writing is such an individual sport. It’s easy to forget there are real, thinking people on the other end of our product. It’s easier to take the word of others about that audience. But it’s worth putting everything on pause for a few moments or a few days…reset our thinking. A writer should never be absorbed with projections of what others might think…no matter who those others might be.

We conveniently forget we write first for ourselves. Instead we convince ourselves that we must write what is wanted – like we are filling a donut order – when what is wanted is fresh fiction. We write hoping to catch the eye of traditional Big House editors – and Hollywood, we tempt with open-ended tales designed to create options for sequels…We let ourselves be dazzled by the promised wealth and fairy glamour of what we ourselves despise when we read it.

It’s not our fault, really – not initially. We see a lot of mixed messages down here in the trenches. We read the how-to libraries, the author biographies, the magazine articles and professor’s comments. Everywhere the focus is the same: How to sell your fiction.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that why we write?

The Real Cost of Pimping Out Your Fiction

Funny you should ask.

Because as writers of Horror fiction (even largely unsuccessful Horror fiction), we are also students of the genre. I like to look (Critic-like) at why a classic is a classic, at how it scares and the language a writer chooses to utilize…which is how I came to be a fan of Literature and Literary Critics. Poking prose to see what it does is fascinating.

But it also leads to respecting the writers that have gone before – especially ones that are the founding authors of what will become our genre canon (because for now, it is merely theoretical and no canon list exists, as our genre is currently in the early stages of Literary Criticism – which formulates and finalizes The List comprised of Literary-quality works). (Phew.)

…And respecting the writers that have gone before comes when they haunt the edges of your own prose, making you want to write something equally as innovative and scary.

The mistake seems to happen when we start taking advice from other writers without knowing who the heck they are or realizing that we are in the midst of a writer’s revolution of sorts (and yet another argument FOR the necessity of dead authors in Criticism).

There are passionate arguments afoot:

  • Genres are/aren’t relevant anymore
  • All fiction is/is not Literature
  • Readers want/don’t want watered down prose
  • Action does/doesn’t trump plot or characterization
  • Fat tomes do/don’t sell
  • Horror is not Weird and Weird is not Horror. Or it is.

Unfortunately, who wrote that how-to book and his or her beliefs may be relevant to your developing style and future success. And it’s important that as a writer you understand which side of the divide you write on, because there are sides and these are not editors whispering in our ears; there will be consequences to decisions made. And most importantly, there is no promise of publication because you did what those books said. And maybe that is why (because you did what they said).

(I didn’t say I wasn’t paranoid. It was a LOT of French medieval history…)

The question becomes, who is ultimately in charge of your writing? Who has their hand on the zipper?

Lap Dances Are Extra

This is also why Horror needs an occasional sightseeing trip through pulp: the best in our genre never wrote to spec… They were outside the box, zippers exposed.

Remember pulp? The days of the Penny Dreadful? The days of Sensation Fiction and newspaper installments? The cheap mass market paperback designed to fit in your pocket and be abandoned in airports? The magnificent and often cheesy cover art and comics? The really great stuff that terrorized kids and lasted a lifetime in therapy?

Those monsters seem to reside in another, pulpy world, drifting earthward just long enough for the tentacles to brush our cheeks, like angel’s wings before departing at the ring of a telephone.

As I sit in front of the computer, massaging a high-centered story, or sacrificing chickens over my keyboard, I wonder why there is a kind of automatic reset…a reversion to a false belief that a story should lurch this way instead of that. Why, specifically with an interruption, the unwelcome Editor comes back on in raging default mode, whispering what “should be done in modern fiction” and how Godzilla should look.

Why does a story go from liquid ooze to a coagulated mess once the The Thinking starts… Who exactly controls the zipper?

So the mind begins to wander. Have I read one too many how-to’s? Am I writing for an audience that is nothing less than a prefab manifestation of someone else’s reader? Have I forgotten why I started the story in the first place? Am I worried about being politically correct? About my parents reading what I write?

And I have begun to realize that maybe it is because with all of the upheaval in publishing and the comings and goings of markets, publishing venues, editors, and options… maybe there is too much reliance on everyone else’s theories, too much thinking going on and not enough writing from instinct. There are no short cuts…no REAL formulas…Getting published is an accomplishment, not an entitlement.

Maybe we zip it in fear because we are too afraid of WHAT we are thinking. Maybe we are grateful for the interruption…the derailment of self-sabotage because to keep on going takes courage that might just guarantee a lifetime of rejections.

The moment the phone rings, the kid next door begins pounding on the walls, the potheads light up their skunkweed… well, that THINKING begins. And it’s like wrestling an alligator – he who has the most teeth wins.

(The next thing I know I’m in another room, fuming instead of writing. The spell is broken. The tentacles lift skyward…I start mentally second-guessing, trying to re-write to spec. What I’d give to uncork a monster and let him run his giganto rubber feet all over my neighbors… may they rot in Tokyo.)

But even then the hint is there…that germ of an idea on how to get the mojo back:

PULP IT.

Pulp was meant to be thrown away, a temporary thrill, to not-last. And there is something creatively freeing to think that what one writes is simply for fun, a spontaneous and joyful madcap run through a field of tall grass… a brief moment of thrills…nude monsters running free…

Best of all, no one recommends it today. Pulp is for REBELS.

The very idea of pulp is liberating… No critics to please. Fits in a file drawer. Devours wicked neighbors… The realization that you can write in the privacy of your own imagination – ANYTHING you want, accountable to no one – stirs the cauldron, summons the unseen.

The truth is golden:

If one can slip into the rubber suit one can squash Tokyo.

So why are we pimping out our fiction? Is getting published that important?

Well, I can say having had it happen once, it is validating. But it is also temporary. Validation by publication is fleeting…because even after it hits print all you see are the glaring errors.

Sure money matters. It helps to have a roof over your head while you pound out that novel. But to manufacture a work as pretense… well let’s face it, to do something for the money may or may not make you a professional, but it may also make you a prostitute. Choose wisely.

Myself, I am going for the zipper. It would be great if something good comes of it. Greater if something Literary comes of it. But for now, I’m happy to just let the monsters frolic. Nude. The way they were meant to be…

Horror the Second Time Around: the Paradox of Misremembering Scary Things


In the constant quest to scare myself and compare newer works to old, I have come to notice something peculiar happening: when I choose to revisit that special movie or book a second time to recapture that eerie, horrified feeling of doom and dread… to savor it once again, to relive the scary…the magic isn’t there. (Or maybe I should say: the same magic isn’t there.)

In fact, whole sections of rather detailed – and what I recall as emotionally integral – terrifying scenes routinely turn up muted or missing.

How can this be? What happens to the mind reading Horror or sitting in a dark theater that we invent so much that isn’t there? Does Horror really lose its effectiveness because we get older? How do we come to misremember the Horror that we remember so well?

Our Brains in a Jar: the Science of Horror

When H.P. Lovecraft rose to the defense of our genre in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, speaking against the Literary Critics of his time, he stated:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (105).

Savor those words a minute…because the literary definition of Horror has long been “stories that exploit fear…”

It is around the potency of this emotion that the Horror genre (even when called Weird) is built. And for that exact reason, every student of Horror should dig deeply into the anatomy of fear. Of course that means digging into some science – specifically the science of the brain (neuroscience), the science of perception (psychology), and the science of the body (biology).

Because for anyone who ever wondered why watching the movie or reading the book the second time around is so totally not the same experience, reading up on the technical end of things sheds some fascinating light. Horror, it would appear, it a whole-body experience.

One of the most interesting books I happened across recently is called What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund. The associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and designer of some pretty iconic book covers, Mendelsund did some interesting digging of his own into the application of imagination in reading.

What do we see when we read? This (it turns out) is a very interesting question. Because apparently, reading is a kind of marriage between what the author suggests and what we remember.

You read right: what we remember. Because according to Mendelsund, we build new literary images from consolidating relevant or similar details born of our own experiences.

Says Mendesund, “the idea of [a] house, and the emotions it evokes in me are the nucleus of a complex atom, around which orbit various sounds, fleeting images, and an entire spectrum of personal associations.” (207)

Furthermore, “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: what we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours…and the feeling has primacy over the image…” (207)

So when we read, we reach into that catalogue of remembrances for the most similar thing and attach it to the skeleton of the author’s words. We shape and refine, correct and adapt as the author gives us more information, but the power of the moment – the very images we associate with that first reading – are not only retained in ghostly fashion, but are most likely ours and based on our personal experiences at that moment in time.

Says Mendelsund, “Much of our reading imagination comprises visual free association…untethered from the author’s text… (we daydream while reading)…A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander…” (294)

And wander Horror minds do…

It goes back to the psychology of the moment associated with the image the author has summoned by the spell of his or her words. Say our victim is wandering an old house in her nightgown. We all have a concept of an old house in mind, but we all also most like remember a very specific old house, one that had some creepy element that haunts us still. We also all understand what it is to discover that we are not safe after all when we are asleep at night (at our most vulnerable, very likely naked or nearly so). So with one simple concept, likely one simple sentence, we have created the whole scary house and put ourselves in it.

We remember, we empathize, and we shiver. It doesn’t matter that, as we read the book, we concede certain facts to the revelations of the author – who constantly divulges them bit by bit. We keep what we kill.

“When we remember reading books, we don’t remember having made these constant little adjustments…We simply remember it as if we had watched the movie…” (Mendelsund 53)

Unfortunately, when we re-read the same sentence years later, we very often have more houses to compare the images to, and have made some decisions about sleeping naked (or nearly so). Therefore when we read the same book or passage years later, it is not the same because the house is different, the victim is different, and the survival plan has changed.

The truth of why Horror doesn’t scare you the same way a second time is one of biology: you changed and the book did not.

Thank God! It’s Brain Science & Not Old Age…

People like to say that Horror is a young person’s game. They claim that it is really a Young Adult obsession, or worse – a phase.

But it turns out that this is not completely true. Of course there are consequences to growing older that affect how our brains ­process Horror. And that has more to do with memory than it has to do with becoming more “emotionally mature.”

But the good news is: if you love Horror, you can love it all of your life. Contrary to speculation (if not popular opinion), we do not outgrow Horror… we out-fox it.

First, we have to look at the profile of those who like Horror, who love to scare themselves, those who refuse to let go of the genre. While there may be a thrill-seeker or two among us, we tend to be pretty “normal” types. But we do confess to having an addiction to adrenaline rushes that a good Horror story can inflict. Having seen what Real Life can do, we also tend to prefer the mental-emotional playground that is the Horror genre.

We also tend to have been the types that have drilled ourselves relentlessly from childhood on how to survive life-threatening events – including the monster under the bed. Only now we choose Zombies over middle-eastern wars, troublesome Ghosts over broken social mores, Vampires over empty relationships. We still have minds that like to work on problem-solving (as all humans do). So we like to pimp our ride: we decorate the threat with shreds of rotting flesh and fangs dripping with radioactive drool and see if we can survive the experience of the encounter.

The reason any of this works or presents any “value” is because of what that little primal germ of fear enables in the brain. As Mendelsund says with regard to the feeling, we “do not want it supplanted by facts.” (206) We crave the feeling of fear.

So with Horror we recreate the tiger in the tall grass, and every time we make him bigger, gnarlier, scarier…to challenge ourselves.

We practice survival of the primal instincts as complicated by the rational mind.

And biology is our co-pilot.

…Because it is the nature of biology to adapt to changing circumstances and ever-changing threats, and Horror is one biological roller coaster ride that lasts from the first sensory intake, loop-de-loops through the amygdala, races through the nerve endings and thrusts fast-twitch muscle fibers of our legs into action even as the scream leaves our mouths.

Yet even then something is happening in our brains – young or old – that makes a significant difference in recapturing that same feeling more than once.

Just as we are hard-wired to jump at indistinct motion in the darkness (thus illuminating the biology behind the jump-scare success of Hollywood), we are hard-wired to catalog the experience for comparison later.

A tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat…you scream…

And you live to tell all your friends the next day over lunch. The next night, a tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat… you wonder where it is coming from….

Already your brain has logged the experience as non-lethal and maybe not even important – just curious.

Your brain has stepped in and…”helped” you. Now you won’t waste precious time and calories running crazily and needlessly through the tall grass. You can wait for the next tiger. The bigger, more lethal tiger. Because this one has shown you all of the criteria for being present and noticed but not a danger to you – not worth endangering yourself. See enough tigers, and you might become desensitized.

Suddenly the Zombie is just this wobbly dead guy; sure he’s ugly, but he’s slow and if you split open his head, it is Life As Usual. Big whup. What else you got?

But this is not necessarily a good thing. Every Zombie has the potential to be different the way every tiger is different. Sometimes we have to remind the brain that it is prudent to run… which is why the rational part of our brain keeps buying into Horror. Deep down, we know we are prey and we really, really want to run…

But this presents a challenge for the makers of Horror, who battle their own cardboard tigers even as they figure a way to surprise their audience with new and improved tigers to fool the brain… So the successful Horror story becomes one in which a new Horror emerges – one you never thought of. It means we have to find ways to outsmart ourselves and our increasingly desensitized audience.

Which makes writing and reading Horror as an older person …even harder; we go through more books and movies before we find a passable scare because as we get older, we have a much thicker catalog to compare things to. But it also means (if we are also writers) that we have the opportunity to make things even more interesting.

Misremembering: It’s Not You, It’s ME

It’s so easy to blame the filmmaker or think the author tricked us. Somehow. All that time ago.

Because the truly weird thing about Horror the second time around is the inserting of whole scenes that we come to discover were never there.

How and why we do this resides in the way human memory works. Because we form memories from a collection of our own experiences – even as we are gathering new ones – every monster is Frankenstein. When we read or see certain images, they resonate with our subconscious and glom together in the darkness of our imagination. Sometimes right in the middle of a book or a movie we go off on a primrose path lined with gothic bleakness and horrible thoughts or crippling fears born of our own personal experiences… our own minds present a few what-if scenarios connected more to our pasts than to what we are reading or seeing and we subconsciously press the emotions generated right into the pages of a book or the cells of a film. We create a ghost of those personal memories and mistakenly think the book or film is speaking directly to us. But then we risk imagining terrors greater than what are actually shown or described. And terror lasts a long, long time in our limbic system.

Being aware of this recollection and comparison of intimate and personal Horrors makes no difference to the outcome.

Even as we rationalize about how that moment is taking us right to this or that memory or traumatic event, it is incorporated into the exoskeleton of the story. Later when we recall the book or film, we remember the terror invoked even when it was our own terror that rose from the ashes of real memory or supposition. We attach those emotions to that fiction and tell ourselves, “that was a good Horror story.”

We even tell our friends. And then they go see it or read it and think it was inane or toothless and tell us so.

And then in indignation, we go and read it or see it again and think what was I thinking? What about that scene where… But there is no such scene. Or it is a big nothing…a field of monster seedlings that no longer germinate in your mind.

Your brain has moved on.

And boy, do you miss that scary part that was never, ever there. You can keep the book as long as you like, but the fairy glamour has dissipated…a fading spell, well-worn even as it has been touched and caressed many times in the imagination. The Horror has become a ghost.

It’s called “emotional re-learning,” and it’s how we manage our trauma which, in turn, transforms the impact of the original Horror.

Here we can learn a lot from sufferers of PTSD. For example, “the sense in which PTSD patients feel ‘unsafe’ goes beyond the fears that dangers lurk around them; their insecurity begins more intimately, in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions. This is understandable, given the hair trigger for emotional hijacking that PTSD creates by hypersensitizing the amygdala circuitry.” (Goleman 210-211)

Nobody wants that. Except that we do –as Horror fans. It is exactly what we attempt to create and experience in a good genre novel or film. But the revelation as to why Horror loses its punch the second time around has a lot to do with how PTSD sufferers resolve their traumas…

Because one step in healing PTSD “involves retelling and reconstructing the story of the trauma in the harbor of that safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a new, more realistic understanding of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers. As patients retell the horrific details of the trauma, the memory starts to be transformed, both in its emotional meaning and in its effects on the emotional brain.” (Goleman 211)

In other words, it is the turning on of the lights and the exiting of the theatre where “The therapist encourages the patient to retell the traumatic events as vividly as possible, like a horror home video, retrieving every sordid detail…the goal here is to put the entire memory into words, which means capturing parts of the memory that may have been dissociated and so are absent from conscious recall. By putting sensory details and feelings into words, presumably memories are brought more under control of the neocortex, where the reactions they kindle can be rendered more understandable and so more manageable.” (Goleman 212)

What Horrors cannot be rewired? The ones we can’t put into words… I detect a conundrum…

Every time we intentionally revisit the memory of that movie or book that scared us so well, every time we read it or see it or talk about it, we remove a tooth from the tiger…we are rewiring the memory and its requisite trauma. And we can’t help ourselves. It’s a brain thing.

The Difference Between HD and Analog

The pure biological truth is tough: we are going to have to outwit ourselves, to trick our brains into being scared in order to keep enjoying Horror. We do that by making and seeking monsters that are infinitely indistinct, partially sensed, indescribable, primal creatures. We do it by letting the audience fill in important blanks with their own PTSD, phobias, and painfully personal details.. and then by not spoiling those images with a far-too total reveal.

Look at Stephen King’s It (in particular in movie form)…a great, truly creepy story that I always abandon at the ending. It got ruined when they wheeled out the Muppet Spider. It was too much information that my own brain had a solution for (a really big shoe). I much prefer to stay in that nebulous, monster-and-clown-infested country that Stephen King novels create before Hollywood gets hold of them.

It really is the difference between analog and HD… because our brains (once they categorize something) shift the images right into analog: worthy of note, but not anything to write home about… a kitschy black and white monster with the zipper showing. We see that the tiger has gray on its muzzle and a bit of a limp; we suspect we can out run him.

In our first encounter on the savannah we saw sudden, undefined motion in the dark…then the green glow of eyes…then TEETH… we imagined the claws ripping us apart and we screamed and grabbed our boyfriends. Or girlfriends. We came out of the movie theater or put down the book and felt positively breathless…like we had stood in a wind tunnel that sucked away everything but us…

But once the biology sets in, there is no getting that feeling back. Once we see tons of tigers, we start counting stripes instead of teeth. We biologically forget the danger because our experience nullifies it. Our inner computer updates with what is – in reality – wrong information. But it is right for the suburban family whose main concern is paying the cable bill and what’s for dinner. Horror works when the writer or film maker can change out the predictability expected by our brains. And what works for me might not work for you…

This is why success in Horror is spelled Stephen King: he connects with the broadest sampling of modern fears. The rest of us (in trying to out-Horror the King of Horror) all too frequently discover that our fears are more to the outside of the mean. Maybe we like Old Horror because those stories contain the kinds of Horror that sneak up on our brains…while maybe Old Horror falls flat to the guy who lives near a graveyard. Horror is relative. Figure in the unpredictable amount of experiences a person can have that mutes those Horrors and the genre is a challenge. But it is a fun challenge.

Just don’t expect to be scared effectively twice by the same monster… Only irrational fears get past the catalog. Even Muppet Spiders. For the rest of us, it’s an endless search for HD in an analog world. Beware the tall grass.

 

References

Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund New York: Vintage Books, c2014.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, c1994.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” At The Mountains of Madness.The Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, c2005.

Zombie Cows: a Little Surf ‘n Turf for Salmon Lovers


Just when you thought Horror couldn’t dig any deeper… along comes World War Moo: an Apocalypse Cow Novel by Michael Logan, and sequel to (you guessed it) Apocalypse Cow.

Yep. Zombie cows take over the world by infecting humans in Great Britain…the only way to save the world: dropping The Big One on the Motherland.

In reading the premise alone a radical idea occurred to me: Could this be (more than just social satire) a commentary about British Horror?

At the risk of revealing just how much Literary Criticism I read and inventing a whole new kind of cow tipping, I have to admit that before I discovered the author was a Scottish freelance journalist, I was secretly hoping he was American. Why? Because in the American versus British Horror contest, it just adds up – and the premise is just too apt.

More specifically…Isn’t the nuking of our ally-gone-Zombie the only way American Horror can beat the British? This is a question I have long pondered… the British being so good at Horror and all.

Of course my hopes for the truth of the motivation and the authorship was not to be. But the ease and speed at which I jumped to just such a conclusion was a revealing point in itself. Could there really be such animosity between the two schools of Horror thought?

A Little Something to Chew On

Trust me… this is indeed a reasonable debate within the genre.

There has been a rivalry for some time – mostly a rivalry fed by American envy of British history and atmosphere (inadequately masked in an oft-denied-methinks-the-lady-doth-protest-too-much kind of way), and aggravated by an obvious-by-McMansion longing for cryptic countryside, declining castles, ruined abbeys, all cloaked in moody weather. The subverted conflict has been complicated by plenty of Horror written in spite of the British (their ghostly presence a thing we in America seem always to be pushing against in a subliminal and almost imaginary duel)…

Sitting in a newer country with significantly less ruins and more shallow, more recently transplanted religious roots, American Horror is typically more slap-dash, more gore-laden, reliant upon the questionable actions of characters instead of couched in conventional isolation and murky scenery left reeking of legend and myth. We simply don’t have the same geography, the same weather, the same local history, nor the same respect for the primitive, hoary roots of our genetically-driven fears. That changes things.

With few exceptions, the British are masters of atmosphere, the slow-cookers of tension and dread; Americans are the McDonald’s of Horror – a swift drive-thru of cascading shocks to the palate.

It’s an artistic difference. But it’s also an historical difference that separates our styles. We tell ourselves we don’t connect with the slow, ponderous knitting of British Horror – yet for many Horror fans, British writers remain unequalled in the genre.

After generations of bloody, guilt-producing, family-dividing history, the British have nailed the Anglo fear spectrum. Americans – on the other hand – remain in denial of the truths that lie buried in much of our Horror literature – we create metaphors and parodies, parables and allegories to dance around while strangely avoiding our own shadows instead of Literarily meeting them head on. But we never dance completely naked. We know what we’ve done and we still make excuses for it.

That’s right. I’m saying it right here:

Even when we create monsters to confront our own evils, we insist that the monster loses – especially after making it worse than ourselves – the monster-makers.

We separate ourselves from what we’ve done and “go all Rambo” where the British writers dangle their characters over the roasting pit and watch them squirm – which says more about humanity and human vanity (just the things a Critic can love).

And we don’t apologize for it. We revel.

The James Fenimore Cooper Effect

I really, really tried to like literary author James Fenimore Cooper’s “westerns” of the colonial period. What I hated was the sudden, miraculous “save” his hero always and inevitably “happened across” just in the nick of time to spare himself (and others) from certain death. Much to my chagrin, I find that very plot template in contemporary Horror. Mostly American Horror.

In our tradition, we tend to hide behind the literal execution of Horror as implemented by monsters… so many monsters. In the American habit of “more is always better” we inundate our Horror with as much gore and as many monsters as we can cram into a plot. We are always overrun. But before we can face justice, we chicken out and cheat; we create and elevate heroes to obscure our earned and destined fate of damnation for our crimes, our massacre by avenging agents. Tah-dah! There appears a fully loaded rifle in the crotch of a tree…

Too many times, this leads to unsatisfactory, anti-climactic endings… to tales that lose their scare-factor as well as their literary value.

The British—on the other hand—stew and connive and struggle with guilt where individual monsters come for justice. There is much more introspection with plenty of room and prose for monsters to stretch their tentacles.

Perhaps the American attempt to find our own ever-changing national identity has proven unwieldy in our creation of Horror.  We are still shaping our tradition, because our history is too recently shaping us.

That – and we haven’t apparently had enough therapy.

But the British writers also seem to have earned the respect of their audience and their Critics. Not so on this side of the pond. American Horror doesn’t yet resonate naturally with Literature on a primal level. We haven’t mastered the balance to achieve created consistency. Nor have we accumulated the requisite number of necessary Critics who know our localized Horror history.

Instead we are still debating sales and audience popularity versus Literary values – which are typically different ends of the same beast. We tend to think that liking a story elevates it to Literature without understanding the qualifiers of Literature or the Literary Critic whose job it is to defend those qualifiers.

We also seem proud to not educate ourselves enough to argue those very points. Like a tourist in a foreign country, we just talk louder.

Perhaps it is our minimized study of English language Literature that has driven us to this cliff. Americans put a lot less emphasis on the importance of the arts in education than do the British. We even redirect students of the Arts to vocational interests that favor higher hourly wages. This is costing us in the creation of arts in general, as well as the creation of arts with depth and breadth and scope as well as in the ability to expertly discuss and argue points.

This national lack of commitment to arts history is also compromising our ability to see and/or create Literature (when we want to).

We are typically uneducated (ignorant, not stupid) with regard to Literature and its Critical values, so we cannot see the merits that all fiction is held and judged against. We fight invisible monsters of our own making. No wonder everyone else is baffled by our fancy footwork.

We take umbrage when our favorite author is disrespected by The Establishment. And The Establishment is in fact exploring its own restrictions and making its own refinements to be more inclusive of the living, changing nature of Literature based on living language and living culture. Debate is open. Change is in the air.

But we need to know from what to what in order to appreciate it and to communicate it.

There will be no rifle hidden in the crotch of any trees for us; Natty Bumppo is the myth. We will have to fight our way out of our own obscurity.

And yes, while Literature may often happen by accident, we have little hope in creating it in Horror if we have not dedicated ourselves to the study of Literature (as well as pulp) in order for our writing minds to mine from those goldfields. One has to know it to use it, rebel against it, or write well in pure spite of it.

Because Horror is a tradition, there should be a traceable, noticeable lineage even as the wicked plant grows. This is true no matter which side of the pond we write on. American Horror is still English language Horror.

Long Live the Queen

I suppose this means I personally have a greater appreciation of British Horror than American Horror, especially Literarily speaking. But it is because reading British Horror tends to be a more Sensurround experience that follows me into REM sleep. American Horror remains less creatively dense, and therefore stays visceral instead of getting in between primal sheets of DNA. I can read or watch American Horror and go right to bed. British Horror tends to require a bit of a decompression before sleep.

That means something.

True rebellion should show as a graft with its own, differing flower. Instead, American Horror is like kudzu…growing wild everywhere, covering everything, but not native either. Does American Horror simply hope to overrun the British with sheer numbers? Perhaps we should just go on and compete… provided the whole Zombie Cow thing doesn’t work out in our favor.

They say that the DNA from Pacific salmon which swim the coastal range rivers show up in the DNA of inland forest trees…

Shouldn’t Horror be the same?

(That’s Michael Logan, Apocalypse Cow, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2012, ISBN 9781250032867, pbk $14.99, and its new sequel World War Moo, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2015, ISBN 9781250061652, pbk  $15.99)