Unlearning the Craft of Failure (or, No One Talks About Real Revision Anymore)


I’ve often wondered why Revision is so difficult. But after attaining my degree I started wondering why everyone was making it so difficult.

It is almost like everyone wants you to fail. Books typically written on the subject of Revision (to put it mildly) suck. For every sentence of worth there are five pages of fluff and confusing flow-charts, diagrams, and pie charts. Terms go incompletely explained or undefined; they are haphazardly introduced, and the mystery of their useful application is left to our already flawed imaginations. They take writers who know something is “wrong” in their fiction and hint at a “well-known” recipe for success. They make you feel stupid… Like everybody else “gets” it except you.

What does this do for the average novice writer – the one without access to a university degree with its fiction writing program? Or an amateur writer who “gets it” sometimes? Or a hopeful young person exploring the very idea of what it takes to be a writer?

The answer is that it leaves us guessing about the true nature of our abilities. It creates the mythology of the Overnight Success and the woefully incorrect parallel that publication validates talent. It hides the hard fact of actual manual labor involved in the construction of story and it reinforces the bad habits of unlearned craft – it creates an unconscious template FOR failure and endless, meaningless Revision that we are helpless to stop…

Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on convoluted attempts at explaining it all: from the depths of our collective despair rides a writing coach. And if you don’t mind snuggling up against a bit of screenwriting wisdom, you might be able to end the mystery and all of its subsequent bad habits.

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Woe is I

There are two things you need to know if you are stressing out about Revision: one, you are not alone; and two, someone finally wrote something that you can use.

I’m going to give you a name: Larry Brooks. And I’m going to give you three book titles: Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix.

Get them and read them. Get them all.

Your first response is going to be feeling overwhelmed. You’re going to find out just how much fiction writing has not been talked about to you. And you are going to be very depressed – at first. The reason is because you are going to feel like writing is so technical it isn’t fun anymore. But bear with Brooks.

What he is teaching is craft and technique… and just like all Horror, you can’t unread it. This means that what you are doing is setting a subtext for your unconscious, a script running in the background that will kick in when the storytelling begins instead of having to unravel it afterward. This alone will reduce the amount of Revision you might have to do. But it will offer something else. It will allow you to be aware of choices that you are making as you write and as you revise.

This is powerful stuff. For those of us who experience writing like a bad game of Blind Man’s Bluff, it will be playing without the blindfold.

This blindness can tend to happen especially if you are what is referred to as an organic writer – that is, you do not start with an outline and construct a story, but prefer to give the Muse her head and let the whole thing unravel on the page. For organic writers, there is a love of the mystery of the process, an embracing of that creative element known as “flow” which carries you into a timeless realm for unnoticed hours and leaves you invigorated…a writer’s high.

The problem with this is that the Muse is a storyteller, but she is also high. And like a spider under the influence, the web she weaves can be beautiful and weirdly unusual at the same time it is fatally flawed.

If you fall under her spell every time you read the magic words, then you are not able to spot the weaknesses that will get you rejected time and again. So if you write like this, you have to realize that you cannot revise like this.

You have to learn to see what an editor sees. And it helps if it has names and definitions and an outline of its own.

Organic writers need know when to switch hats. And when to leave denial in the dust. This isn’t about aesthetics and editors who don’t like your style… You can wail about that all you want when you’ve mastered the elements of craft. Until then, you are just sabotaging yourself and wasting a lot of time. Trust me. Time is something you won’t get back. Don’t be wasting it on ego.

This is about Rejection – that of editors and your own: remember those stories in the back of your file drawers that you read and reread and continue to sigh over? It’s about knowing deep down that something is fundamentally wrong with your writing and not being able to name or fix it. The prose is lovely, the sentences are perfection, the grammar stellar, the character so perfect you could see him or her walking right into the room….yet. What is going on with the story? Is it even a story? Or a type of one? You know the story I’m talking about… the one you really like but can’t send anywhere.

Professionals will say you haven’t yet earned your stripes, that a real writer will figure it out: that is The Test…. And that Revision is part of the process and deserves decades of your gut-wrenching attention – such are the dues we all pay…blah, blah, blah.

But what if that just isn’t true? Or maybe not completely true?

Let’s face it; right now in our world, writing fiction is still not taught the way the rest of the Arts have been taught for centuries – well, except for screenwriters, who are ahead of the game in many cases. We fiction writers are having to rediscover the wheel as a profession using books, the MFA and workshops, and pretty much anything we can get our grubby hands on. Only now the Professionals want each individual writer to rediscover the wheel by themselves. As proof of their worthiness.

What is up with that?!

If writing has rules – known as criteria (not formula) –then it makes sense that not following fundamental writing rules will get you rejected. And let’s face it:  it doesn’t hurt to write knowing eventually what criteria will be on the list to be ticked off.

And while you may rightly rebel against what looks like yet another formula, Brooks clarifies, “What you are about to learn isn’t formulaic” but operates more like a structural blueprint that only dictates rough scaffolding. He gives the example of the human face, i.e., with nature’s strict palette of eleven biological variables to work with, asks Brooks, “how often [do] you see two people who look exactly alike?” What Brooks is giving us is bones and biological variables. Bones to hang any manner of genre flesh from. Because whether you are talking Mysteries, Thrillers, Romance, Adventure…they all share the same structural skeleton, the same biological blueprint he names “the core competencies.” (Engineering 6-7)

Starting out, you will have to fight the natural recoil – especially if you dislike clinical peeks at your writing. But if you don’t build it that way, if you wrote before you knew about and understood the core competencies or any of the rest of the architecture Brooks gives in his three books, you are probably facing some form of Revision. And a whole lot of emotionally laced confusion.

This is going to feel mechanical. Revision is a technical skill, not a creative one, and there are no two ways about it. But if you think Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, or Austen didn’t revise, you haven’t read their biographies. It’s time to accept that Revision is part of the process – just as it is time to accept that we’ve been making it far harder than we’ve needed to.

Revision, we are so constantly assured, can take years…(and this is especially true if you are feeling your way along.) What all we needed was someone with a technical writer’s flair for explanation, and the simple truth given simply. Larry Brooks is our man.

When you tire of rejections, when you tire of trying to revise a story you feel like you are –  in your ignorance of what is wrong –  just destroying…it’s time to get help. It’s time to get Brooks.

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Awakening the Real Writer Within

Sometimes breaking the fairy glamour of organic writing is tough. But just like when you happen to find a fairy stone and peek through the worn hole of it – when the spell shatters it is a bit jarring….absolutely necessary – but jarring.

You’re going to have to make some admissions. But fortunately, you can make them in private.

One of these is whether or not you can recognize a story as a story. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t, and it most often it is one of those creations in the back of your file cabinet that you love dearly but don’t know what the heck is. The reason is because it isn’t a story…it’s perhaps a scene, or a vignette, or a musing – and look hard at that word! In that much-loved piece there is no beginning, middle and end…just a collection of lovely constructed sentences that was fun to write.

This is what Brooks says on the subject: “Writers who don’t know what a story is tend to simply write about something. That’s a recipe for disaster. Rather, what they need to write is about something happening…A writer who doesn’t know the true definition of story can only hope to stumble upon, however intuitively, the complex sequence and forces of story in a way that really works…Begin with accepting the truth about your story and then be honest about how much of it is alive in your mind.” (Story Fix 173-174).

As an organic writer myself, the lesson is hard…the Muse is sometimes drunk on her own power. But what I have found reading Brooks, is that the very stories that do have profound flaws are falling apart exactly where he says they would, missing exactly what he says they are. That got my attention even as it irritates me, because I am obsessed with the idea of capturing that elusive thing known as craft, and have been convinced by many that the acquisition of this particular knowledge would save me and my writing.

But Brooks complicated that thought with this comment: “It’s all craft, craft, craft. And on one level that’s how it should be. But on another level, conceptual appeal is at least half of the whole ballgame.” (Fix 171).

This is another wake-up call. Because this is what all of those other books were hinting around at but just not saying. There is always this annoying darting from clinical diagrams to the magical mystery tour of related terms no one connects together in other books on Revision. In fact, increasingly books on Revision have become books on writing…An interestingly, many books on writing are looking a lot like the approach given by Brooks.

Take for example, a recent publication by author Gabriela Pereira titled DIY MFA…it mirrors what Brooks has done, installing its own terminology and processes…do you want to follow a story model (Brooks- Engineering  141) or a story map (Pereira 63)?  Do you want “decisions” (Pereira 110) or “parts” and “Pinch points”? (Brooks- Engineering  165, 200) Clearly there is something to this approach to understanding story construction…

And while I have been reluctant to look directly in the face of what I have incorrectly seen as a move toward commercialism and cookie-cutter creations, Brooks shows that concept is part of the story, not a buzzword for marketers or nefarious retail plans. Concept is not a dirty word – it is a term.

Brooks makes it clear that while this is about being published, it is only so because being published is one possible happy side-effect of good writing. And he admits writing these books came as a result of his own frustration with what he found in other books, in writing workshops, and conferences – in other words, what we have found…confusion.

Brooks takes his experience with studying screenwriting materials and his experience as a writing coach to marry the two disciplines of screen and fiction writing – why? Because screenwriters have honed the process down to the bare bones.

I admit there is a part of this that makes me bristle a bit…when I look at diagrams for structure and see a given thing should happen at a specific percentage of the way through a story, I feel uneasy…Like this is the very thing I have heard Critics cringe about… just a new kind of formula to make Hollywood happy, to churn out “bestsellers” that have little Literary value.

But despite the inferred connection some will derive between writing a salable story and having a film rights on a contract, I tend to think Brooks has done the right thing. We are not, after all obligated to do the things that lead away from Literature and toward Hollywood. But we are far better off to have learned at least one take on the structure of storytelling – with which we can embellish, mirror, or deviate from – than we are to sit in a dark room wondering what is wrong with our fiction. For years. Or forever, whichever comes first.

I think the truth is this: one can just learn the basic bones of craft and construct salable stories – and indeed sell them. Or one can continue to build on that foundation…experimenting with concepts and formula arrangements the way a jazz musician plays with the rules of music. That is where Literature will happen. But before Literature happens we need to understand how to construct a story… even a contrived one.

For example, at our core, in our very hearts, we know that when our writing fails there is a reason it is failing. I’m not talking about rejections. I’m talking about that moment alone when you are picking up a story you have let bake for a bit, and reading through it you suddenly find yourself unhorsed…that narrative thread you thought was so taunt suddenly causes you to stop and re-read a sentence… the “wait a minute – what?” moment.  This is an editorial sign that something is wrong. Very wrong.

Brooks says, “…effective stories need two separate dimensions of energy. Just two. Either (1) your story proposition isn’t strong enough, or (2) its execution isn’t effective enough.” (Fix 12-13)

You know that this is a truth. But what you need to do is be able to see which truth applies and then find out how to fix it…specifically fix it….not make use of empty advice like “make it sing.” You need advice like your first plot point comes too late and the second plot point is too weak. You need to hear that your story is boring unless you change the entire premise. You need to know what a plot point or a premise is.

And most importantly, you need to admit that no one ever taught you that… that you’ve been guessing up to this point.

Do you know what dramatic arc is? How to increase tension?

Says Brooks:

“Revision requires two focusses in terms of process, both of which applies to the story level and the execution level of viability:

  1. the identification and repair of that which is broken within a story, either at the story level or the narrative arc level
  2. the elevation of that which has yet to reach its highest dramatic strength and character potential.

In other words, we are looking at what’s broken and what’s just plain weak.” (Fix 144).

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Getting Started

The best thing you can do is to start at the beginning.

Start with the first book, Story Engineering: Mastering the 8 Core Competencies of Successful Writing.

Did you see that? When was the last time anybody mentioned anything about core competencies?

They are: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, writing voice, story development. They are not defined in a sentence; they are defined in chapters. Revisited and reinforced by other chapters.

Do you know what they mean or how to implement them? Do you think you know? And shouldn’t you be sure?

One of the most important reasons you need to get started is because these are complicated issues that you need to marry to your own creative process. They are craft issues. Fundamental craft issues…the ones you cannot skip or expect an editor not to notice are missing or mishandled.

The best thing about Brooks, is that he sounds like he is already in your head. Says Brooks, “without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up with a dream that never materializes.” (Engineering 4) And this is proved true time and again, with nonspecific comments made by Writers and experts of all ilk. I have mentioned this before – this pretense of knowledge everyone alludes to and no one defines. Myself, I have had enough. Where’s the beef?

The idea that everyone else is in The Know and you would do well to fake it until you, too, “get it” is stupid. The idea that when a writer is lucky enough or intuitive enough, or studied enough that they figure it out is some kind of validation of the modern “process” or in any way legitimizes who and what have gone before is also stupid.

Here’s an important statement made by Brooks on this subject: “…published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of Story architecture…” (Engineering 3) They don’t sit and guess, they know that there is a model and that model works for them, and they write with it embedded in their subconscious. You can spend years guessing at such templates, hope by osmosis to deduce them from classic Literature, or you can find a teacher of story architecture…

That would be Larry Brooks, for $17.99 or so per book, or a five or six figure college education…or years of rejections… or pure luck. It’s your choice.

But Rejection is the general tell that you need help. That, and tearing your own hair out.

Knowing what you are doing is what separates the Professional Writer from the Novice writer. It is what keeps some people looking down on your writing and minimizing the competition.

I say it’s time to up the game. Challenge yourself.

Go to your collection of stories. You know which one has been sticking out like a sore thumb, the one that has that part where it all seems to go awry. Copy it on your computer, print it out double-spaced, and sit down with Brooks. Read until you find the scenario of what you are seeing wrong in your story. Mark the printout with terms, and with structure points. Can you find your first plot point? Can you identify the very sentence in which everything changes? Is there really a mission for your protagonist? Can you see the arc from your front porch?

Are you lost when you read those words? Do you think you shouldn’t be, but you’re too embarrassed to say? Get Brooks. Turn beet red in the privacy of your own file cabinet. Then fix it. Fix it ALL. Or burn it.

I’m not going to kid you – Brooks scares me. He scares me because I already know he’s right. His books are full of terms and diagrams and – guess what? – DEFINITIONS. Explanations. Examples.

And I’m going to tell you the truth. I have to read and re-read Brooks. It’s not because he dazzles you with big words or concepts (he defines and gives excellent examples); rather, it’s because he is talking about applying something complicated, clinical and patently un-magical to your work, and there are a lot of emotionally-charged strings attaching you to your misbegotten prose.

Having created the spell, sometimes it is hard to divest yourself of its glamour. You start reading like a reader and not like a writer or editor. You fall into it and forget what you are supposed to be doing. You must stop that in order to fix it.

It is difficult not to fall into that murky pond of imagination lurking in your prose. And it is difficult to accept that the cold embrace of the Muse is her trying to drown you before you change anything. But if you want it published, and it is a technical flaw that is compromising the story – again, noticeable because you yourself become disoriented in the middle of things – then it has to be done. Something must change.

That’s why I encourage you to purchase all three books. Each one focuses on the different levels of story construction. And they feel deep, because you have to be willing to look back at stories you wrote that you thought we complete. When you start trying to apply his process to yours, you start realizing just how deep in the weeds you’ve been. And that you’re going to have to eventually come out…

There is a lot of emotional baggage that has to be sorted from writing that needs to be fixed. I am saying that I finally bought Brooks because his was about the only books left on the shelf I hadn’t bought. And I can honestly say that his may well be the only ones I actually needed.

Has it made a difference in publication for me? Not yet, although there is at least one newer story with Brooks’ influence out there that hasn’t come back yet… And I have begun to construct stories with a better awareness of what I need to create in there. For me it is too early to tell if it will all lead to success, but I have selected for Revision two victims from my drawers that have given me fits, and I willing to make changes to them as Brooks advises…so I am running them through the paradigm…slowly, because eviscerating your children is hard, even when they are flawed.

This is how it’s done.

It’s why writing is such hard work. And it means we cannot be squeamish. We have to take out the knives and carve up our children. It really is for the best. Because it’s time to start crafting success.

C’mon. Let’s scare some Professional Writers. It’ll be fun.

 

References

Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2011.

Brooks, Larry. Story Physics. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013.

Brooks, Larry, Story Fix. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2015.

Pereira, Gabriela. DIY MFA. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2016.

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


The shortest, most succinct definition of Weird I ever read was: “Stories about things that cannot possibly happen.”

To this day, that is the most helpful of all definitions I have read – the least complicated with the most meat. That simple statement reminds the reader and the writer to think about the ultimate destination of plot, and the conditions by which we get there. For example, this particular definition of Weird includes all of the traditional monsters of Horror – although the ghost waivers on the fringe at times. But it also encompasses what is referred to as “Cosmic Horror” – which is to Science Fiction what Dark Fantasy is to Fantasy.

However, nothing in defining Weird Fiction is completely simple because as a reader or Critic accumulates examples of stories, there is just enough “spin” on the different plots, characters and atmosphere that Critics need more specifics.

So let the digging and defining begin…

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Defining Weird Fiction

When anyone attempts to succinctly define Weird Fiction, they inevitably resort to discussing H.P. Lovecraft. It isn’t that Lovecraft invented the Weird (he did not) but it was under his study and practice of it that the form coalesced. Part of the reason was Lovecraft’s inability to market much of his fiction, and part of it was his own obsession to clarify its differences from Supernatural and Gothic fiction forms of the day. Either way, Lovecraft spent a lot of time writing — including essays and  letters to other writers exploring the Weird. Because of his skill as a paid editor and his love of both literature and pulp forms, he better expressed the differences he was seeing – a talent that in turn makes him a favorite among fans as well as modern Critics when looking at the Weird.

But as the Weird caught on with other writers and the body of Weird literature (small “L”) began to grow, scholars of such things as definitions had new decisions to make. Was Weird writing in decline after Lovecraft, or undergoing expansion and change?

This has led to dabbling in terms such as the New Weird, the Modern Weird, and the British Weird to include all of the writings that came after Lovecraft. But does this help or hurt the definition? And isn’t all Weird just Weird?

First, one needs to acknowledge that there are as many definitions as there are readers, writers, and Critics of the Weird. Critics are obsessed with nailing down the defining conventions of Weird fiction as Lovecraft wrote it simply because to understand revision one must know the purist original form.

While everyone is entitled to their opinions, I admit to being persuaded by better argued opinions, not so much those offered by the merely passionate. To help get us pointed in the same direction, I have chosen to highlight those definitions which show an interrelated set of themes – specifically those presented by Lovecraft himself, by rising Horror Critic S.T. Joshi, British writer and Critic China Mieville, and editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (primarly because of their recent effort to compile an almost encyclopedic collection of Weird tales).

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H.P. Lovecraft

Here’s the problem: Weird fiction was in the process of defining itself when Lovecraft died in 1937. While a number of writers were quite vocal about the subject, until Lovecraft adopted the form exclusively, “Weird” was pretty much a misunderstood and often generally applied adjective. With Lovecraft, the idea of genre began to coalesce and conventions began to emerge. This is what makes Lovecraft — a prolific writer of letters and essays on the subject – a dominating force and constant reference for Critics in the attempt to define the whole of Weird Fiction.

Lovecraft was a dedicated student of such Weird tales as its early days presented. Specifically he gravitated toward Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, and Greek mythology (Montague-Lovecraft 30) – all of which have recognizable influence on his encapsulation of the Weird. Yet he also read and had “affection for the dime novels of the day, ironically, given his like for the more highbrow end of literature. He voraciously devoured westerns, detective and espionage stories….” (16).

All of this congealed in his style until the one discovery that would set the Weird in motion – astronomy. In his essay, “Confession of Unfaith,” Lovecraft states: “The most poignant sensations of my existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and of 1902 when I discovered the myriad suns and worlds of infinite space…The futility of all existence began to impress and oppress me; and my references to human progress, formerly hopeful, began to decline in enthusiasm.” (Montague-Lovecraft 28).

This changed everything. For one thing, the bulk of Lovecraft’s earlier works were largely in imitation of other writers as he searched for his own voice. It was the unique marriage of his study of astronomy, mythology and the writings of those at the forefront of Weird writing that gave him focus and his own style, launching the Weird into its own cosmos. This is where the Weird was born, assembled from the many parts that had already begun to burst from the egg sac of the Supernatural and Gothic forms.

The first thing that Weird writers changed was how characterization was revealed in Weird tales. This is a significant difference from the rest of the fiction of the day – and a change that alienated Lovecraft from the Critics of the time. But the change had in a sense already happened in the pulps – it simply hadn’t been completely unified into a type of fiction with its own name and criteria. Gone were the deeply developed, likeable Literary characters. Instead the characterizations seemed cold and almost shallowly drawn – there but for the purpose of advancing the plot toward what would become a Literary-induced end, fraught with world view.

So while we assume that by reading Lovecraft, we might be influenced enough to be writing Weird… that by osmosis we become schooled in the Weird… something has indeed gone a bit awry. As it is, we get into trouble when we as writers (and that means any of us from novice to professional ranks) read someone like Lovecraft, and attempt to mimic him without understanding Lovecraft’s own interpretation of how weird fiction functions.

For example, Joshi explains, “….the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy… and to lay the ground for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm…is not so different in the approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism.” However the “dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the popular success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction” (7).

China Mieville agrees, clearly stating: “Lovecraft’s protagonists are so unheroic: there is no muscular intervention that can save the day.” (Mieville xiii).

Yet before we in displaced loyalty to King or Straub attack Mieville or Joshi, we must first realize that the reason Joshi (and Mieville) arrived at this conclusion is because Lovecraft himself declared, “I could not write about ‘ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of imagination….”(7)

Says Joshi, “Weird fiction should not be about ordinary people. Even if one does not adopt the ‘cosmic” attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary” (Joshi-Modern Weird 7). He further clarifies that in his opinion the heavy emphasis on the latter makes a weird work “thin and poorly conceived” where not enough attention is paid to the reason for the work itself – the weird phenomenon. (7)

In addition to the change in character, there was something else…the Weird had embraced a new otherworldliness…one that was definitely not the familiar supernatural. It was called cosmic horror.

Lovecraft began to actively follow in the footsteps of Blackwood, Machen and Chambers, whose protagonists “were often doomed men for whom reality had become blurred. Often, they were scientists or explorers who were forced to undergo horrific physical transmutations or witness hideous rituals, the natural and scientific laws shattered in the process.” (30).

This marks a sea change in the writing of the day, unifying writers that were sharing new conventions and more “modern” world views that distinguished them from the Gothic tradition (which itself seemed to face backward); a new lineage was being spawned, and a strong focus on – if not preoccupation with – discovery and the sciences was the impetus. It also meant that there was a desire to define what is natural law and therefore what is supernatural. Because for writers of the Weird, it was the breaking of natural laws and the birth of the irrational  that offered more tangible Horror than the mere supernatural.

The preoccupation with the cosmic influence on the minimization of humanity became the impetus of Weird fiction that lifted the Weird tale from the earlier, more constraining conventions of the nineteenth century Gothic tale and ghost story and “imbued the reader with a sense of creeping unease” (30) – which we now recognize as one of the Weird’s main structural conventions.

It was Lovecraft who seemed most preoccupied with defining what he was writing – of giving the Weird structure.  Other writers seemed to drift in and out of the form – but it was Lovecraft who dedicated himself to it – who sculpted out the very idea of a genre space. And with his passing, coincidentally came a new blow to the Weird.

 

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S.T. Joshi

By 1940, explains Joshi, “the demise of the pulps led to the birth of paperback book publishing and some of the genres – particularly mystery and science fiction – flourished in this new medium. Weird fiction, for whatever reason, did not.” (Joshi-Modern Weird 4) This means that the window for gathering definitive works used to model conventions upon and cement formula is particularly narrow. Continues Joshi, “Until recent times, of course, weird fiction was never written in any great quantity; before the establishment of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, no periodical was ever devoted exclusively to the weird” and since then, most modern writers of the weird also have an affinity for other genres – such as Robert Bloch, Fritz Lieber, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont (4).

For this reason, Joshi is wont to study Lovecraft for useful definitions, drawn directly from the most complete skeleton of the early Weird ever excavated – Lovecraft.

And what seems to strike Joshi most about the early Weird and Lovecraft’s use of it is the one thing most likely to grab at a Critic’s heart – philosophyand in this case, world view.

Says Joshi: “The weird tale offers unique opportunities for philosophical speculation – it could be said that the weird tale is an inherently philosophical mode in that it frequently compels us to address directly such fundamental issues as the nature of the universe and our place in it… certain authors develop certain types of world views that compel them to write fiction that causes readers to question, revise, or refashion their views of the universe; the result is what we (in retrospect) call weird fiction.” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 11)

While this may seem like the kind of boring, beside-the-point stuff only a Literary Critic could love, it is important to the definition of what we call Weird fiction. Most of us already sense an “elevation” in Weird writing that sets it apart from the rest of pulp, and we are proud when we see Critics appreciate what it was we sensed. But what we need to acknowledge is that this “elevation” is due to the incursion of Literary elements – in this case that intrusion of philosophy. And that means that if we write Weird fiction, according to the developing definition, our writing must include some form of it. Fortunately, when writing true Weird fiction, such is almost unavoidable – another reason Critics have embraced this one ingredient as part of the official definition of Weird.

A second qualifier for the Weird is form. Notes Joshi, “Lovecraft makes clear in ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ the vital shift in weird writing affected by Poe – principally in making the short story rather than the novel the vehicle for the weird and in his insistence on psychological realism…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 3)

Ironically, modern times have seen a spike in the short story format – perhaps an event fanned by the flames of self-immolating publishing houses – driving most writers to magazine and anthology markets. And this has helped in souring a revisitation of writers to our pulpish roots, as well as spawning innumerable Lovecraft-themed anthologies which can’t help but create a new wave of New Weird writing…

But it has also caused us to revisit the issue of why – with few exceptions – our writers have difficulty achieving success with novels in our genre. It has long been argued by Critics that the Horror story itself is not suited to novel-length development – that it cannot sustain the necessary tension throughout to deliver the required shock-ending. And the greater success of short story anthologies in our genre would seem to support the argument. However then one has to look at a writer/Critic like China Mieville and his success in the novel form of Weird writing to wonder if this is true, or if we have been making excuses…

Joshi clearly thinks that this smaller group of successes indicates that the Weird tale itself suggests a conventional preference for short story. Here he aligns himself with Lovecraft, who long promoted message over money – another  Critical preference. So while there may be exceptions, Joshi seems to believe like Lovecraft that the standard medium for the Weird tale is the short story…even if we must starve to write it.

The third qualifier – as mentioned by Lovecraft in the quote above – is the use of psychological realism… or as Joshi explains, “any tales founded upon science” and most often utilizing a “subset of nonsupernatural horror.”  An example would be the psychological ghost story where the realism is delivered as based chiefly on the findings of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis – which is not science fiction “because of their manifest intent to incite horror” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 7-8). This use of the ghost story to delineate and illustrate how the Weird acts differently upon traditional genre is an important concept to grasp. If you don’t see it, you will miss the important boundary line between the Weird and the rest of Horror.

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China Mieville

For China Mieville, one of the greatest “tells” of Weird fiction – especially in lieu of Lovecraft – are the monsters. Because as Mieville points out, these are not “the modernizing of the familiar vampire or werewolf (or garuda or rusalka or any other such traditional bugbear). Lovecraft’s pantheon and bestiary are sui generis. There have never been any fireside stories of these creatures; we have neither heard of nor seen anything like them before. This astonishing novelty is one of the most intriguing and important things that can be noted about Lovecraft, and about the tradition of Weird fiction in general.” (Mieville xiv)

The shift to new and imaginary fauna in fiction was concept shattering…and it led directly to the development of modern Fantastic fiction. But it was the effect of World War I which carried the greatest influence on these embryonic forms of new fiction – the horrors of which “smashed apart the complacencies of rationality and uncovered the irrationality at the heart of the modern world… certainly (the) stock of werewolves and effete vampires were utterly inadequate to the task” (xv) of enlivening our collective nightmares.

Yet, according to Mieville, early fantasy writers tried anyway. Says Mieville, “At the low end of culture in the pulp magazines (such as Weird Tales) Weird fiction shared with Surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that was in fact saturated with the uncanny.” (xv) Hence, the Scientific Uncanny infused and informed the Weird, and writers like Lovecraft began to insinuate what were then cutting-edge scientific theories into their fiction  and wind them back to description and color of myth and folklore (xv). The result is a horrendous and unholy marriage between what we fear our technologically driven discoveries will reveal about us, and what we already know about our primal origins.

These two features of Weird fiction then – the often indescribable, never before seen monster and its irrational/impossible intrusion into our rational world – provide a binary set of conventions that inform the definition of the Weird. And for Lovecraft, “the exposition of a monstrous cosmic history, of hateful cults, of the misbehavior of matter and geometry, is all the stronger for being gradually, seemingly randomly, uncovered.” (xii)

But there is a third characteristic of the Weird that Mieville and Joshi both note a characteristic presence of: setting.

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The VanderMeers

For most of us in the genre, we are most aware of atmosphere as a required convention. We are used to and long for the eerie, mist-covered moors, the dread-covered darkness that seeps into every cell and serves as the vehicle for the deliverance of Horror. Horror takes the familiar and builds unease. The Weird, however does something slightly different – and to the Critic’s liking – more Literary with setting: it temporarily abolishes the rational – suspending the story in time and place instead of merely coloring its temperament. In the Weird the setting –not the circumstances – isolate and transform.

According to the VanderMeers, “Usually the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the usual that they have become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss they may decide to unsee what they saw, but they still saw it.” (VanderMeer xv).

This indulgence in atmosphere is more pervasive than in generic Horror… We as readers are not connected to the character as much as we are connected to the feeling the character is meant to experience and which he or she typically is unable to fully describe. Add the VanderMeers, “Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing, the most keenly attuned amongst us will say “I know it when I see it’ by which they mean ‘I know it when I feel it….” (xvi)

This feeling is often drawn directly out of the setting of the story – the best example of which is likely Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft’s use of the stark, almost-lunar landscape of the Arctic serves to isolate and perform that refashioning of reality that allows for the revelation of monsters and the truths about us which they may represent. It is a characteristic then of Weird fiction that setting takes on an active role – almost as a separate character itself, wherein “The most unique examples of the Weird …largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today.” (xvi)

It is a Critical “plus” that such landscape in Weird fiction Literarily represents both the writer’s psychic landscape while being a symbolic statement of our collective psyche and culture (Mieville  xvii) As such, it offers that road to world view and philosophy so highly valued by Critics, including evidence of a writer’s personal evolution over time and works. But it also causes that equally interesting and Literary change in the reader – that transformation or reanalysis of the reader’s world view… “A reverie or epiphany,” say the VanderMeers, “But a dark reverie or epiphany…” in which it is easy to be emotionally overcome and our explorations become personally transformative (VanderMeer xv).

This does not mean that to write Weird Fiction we should birth contrived creations designed to bury our beliefs for Critical excavation – those Critical elements are subliminal at best, and artistically placed when professionally handled. The best Weird fiction is still honest fiction. Nor should this be taken to mean that Weird fiction always has exotic locations, but that the sense of the exotic, the unknown and unknowable lurk heavily within any chosen Weird setting. But it also means that when we sit down to read or write Weird fiction, there should be some things that are universally fixed in that writing.

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The Conclusion

So where does all of this leave us – the writers and readers of the Weird?

The general consensus seems to be summed up by leading Horror editor Paula Guran in her introduction to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016, “The Dark Dangerous Forest” in which she addresses definitions in general:

“We’ve already established that neither dark fantasy nor horror is really definable. Any definition you might apply is apt to be debated anyway. Perhaps more importantly, both terms are – by the very nature of what they describe – always evolving, changing, mutating, transforming.” (Guran 7)

Not that I make a habit of disagreeing with leading editors, but I seriously do disagree…with respect to the totally awesome Ms. Guran…

I believe there are definitions – there have to be, or there is no such thing as genre…and rejections are worthless, psychic endeavors – not about controlling skilled writing and craft. The very complicated and difficult task of cementing any such definitions belongs to the Literary Critic in particular, and variance on the theme is in the hands of writers and editorial preferences. However, to attempt to escape the responsibility of defining genres and subgenre conventions because it is difficult (which is why Literary Critics are educated in Literature and Linguistics to the Ph.D. level) or ever changing (which is the state of all Literature – even genre), is a cop-out.

Language and Literature are living things. Of course they are always changing. That’s why there is Lovecraftian Weird, New Weird, Modern Weird, British Weird, feminist Weird…need I go on? But this doesn’t change the truth that something makes Weird, WEIRD. That “thing” must be definable or how are writers to be expected to write it? Critics to analyze it? Editors to select it? Readers to find it?

This is not to say that the task is easy. When even our best Critics are feeling the frustration, it makes our task all the harder.

Between his study of Lovecraft and his Critical exploration of Weird fiction, Joshi has fashioned a “working” (Critical) definition, although he admits at best it is still a study in progress:

“As I see it, the weird tale must include the following broad definitions: fantasy, supernatural horror, nonsupernatural horror, and quasi-science fiction. All of these categories should be regarded as loose and nonexclusive, and there are some other subtypes that are probably amalgams or offshoots of those just mentioned…” (Joshi-The Weird Tale 6-7).

But by Joshi’s own words, it is far too early to establish a more accessible definition – such things happen through the course of the application of Critical Theory to a broad selection of works – an enormous task awaiting the new Literary Critic of the future. But it does not mean that there are not rules orchestrating plot behind the scenes.

It does mean that as writers, we need to study what we have called subgenres, to place our own personal catalogs within the structure of genre. We need to be careful with the terms we use, to insist others are, and to demand clarification when someone declares a work unconventional.

Like the Literary Critic, we need to decide on the meaning of terms and their definitions in order to communicate what we want, what we need, and what we are doing. This is best achieved when we work with Literary Critics – not against them.

Joshi states, “I am not, as a result, prepared to define the weird tale, and venture to assert that any definition of it may be impossible. Recent work in this field has caused an irremediable confusion of terms such as horror, terror, the supernatural, fantasy, the fantastic, ghost story, Gothic fiction, and others. It does not appear that any single critic’s usage even approximates that of any other, and no definition of the weird tale embraces all types of works that can be plausibly assumed to enter into the scope of the term. This difficulty is direct result of the conception of the weird take as some well-defined genre to which some works ‘belong” and others do not.”

And yet, this is exactly the impression Critics and editors alike leave for the writer: that we should know and be able to replicate it at will... It’s what set me on the mission to root out a working writer’s definition.

And I did…Using everything I gave you supported above by our two best Critics, one canon writer, and a pair of editors.

So here it is, a makeshift list of already accepted Weird Conventions:

  • extraordinary characters
  • pervasive cosmic influence
  • identifiable philosophy/world view
  • typically presented in short story form
  • utilizing psychological realism over the supernatural
  • populated by unfamiliar/indescribable monsters
  • all roaming an intense and exotically tinged setting

Or, you can just put in your mind the definition I started with: “stories about things which cannot possibly happen….” Yet that which somehow, to our Horror…do.

Is Weird fiction a subgenre of Horror or is Horror a subgenre of Weird fiction?

I am probably not fully qualified to say, but I have my own opinion – that as powerful and inspiring as it is, Weird is a Literary subgenre in the same way Ghost Story and the Gothic are. I say it because like those two subgenres, there is a similar sense of creative constriction in the Horror invented – a kind of vanishing point the further away from Innsmouth we write (reflected in the frustration of Critics with the lack of Weird starch in the newer stories), and I like to think a genre generally frees the imagination, broadening at both ends.

While the best-written Weird spins marvelous offshoot tales draped over “indescribable and unnamed horrors,” it also acutely severs the trajectory from folk and fairy tales in favor of science and technology, leading me to believe it is as much a dead end in Horror because of the supremacy of Lovecraft in the same way that Joshi (and many others) claim M.R. James created a dead end to and for the Ghost Story: it isn’t that newer contributions cannot be entertaining or well-written, but it is increasingly hard to be “original” and stay within the invisible Weird confines.

And surprisingly, it is the Literary Critic who is making these same points. This is why I read S.T. Joshi. And Mieville. And any Literary Critical essay I can find on our genre. This is why I heavily recommend studying such essays and specifically Joshi’s – not because I agree with him (many times I do not) – but because he (almost exclusively and certainly most ravenously) is struggling to set the perimeters of genre and subgenre, to establish the conventions and definitions that will allow the serious work of Literary Criticism to begin.

I am (sadly) still awaiting a major work from China Mieville on the subject…(hint, hint, Mr. Mieville…)

To be part of that discussion you will have to do some homework, because clearly no one is going to just hand the information to you. But one thing is true: understanding more about what you are writing will make you a better writer. And maybe – just maybe, your opinion will come to matter.

Wouldn’t that be weird?

 

References

Guran, Paula. “Introduction: The Dark and Dangerous Forest.” The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

There had to be. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

When Horror Was Horror, or Was It Ever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovecraft3

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

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

Joshi1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We thought it was us.

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

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

Weird Heroes: the Literary Critic

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

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

Mieville 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind that Lovecraft himself went down this path…

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

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

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

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

And Critical Theory is how we get canon.

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story: Judging the Book Business of Horror


I miss the ‘80s. All of the time. And I miss it because of the book covers.

This is not a product of my age, however. It is instead the fact that we face an inexcusable irony in today’s Age of Information Technology: it’s harder than ever to find information…sound, truthful, vetted information. About anything.

From who wrote what to canon lists, from how to write a short story to the definition of Literary terms and Literary Criticism…All the way to where is the New Horror shelved….Just because it once was aptly published does not mean you can find it – or find it easily – today. Even when it is right in front of you, it’s almost impossible to see.

This has more to do with the packaging than you think. And with Technology, the packaging seems to have homogenized along with everything else. Technology has this nasty habit of making everything disappear, right before the eyes.

But if there are exceptions, why isn’t the proof of the past and the proof of current sales figures enough to send us right back to the awesome book covers of Yore? Why do we assume it to be more complicated than simply judging a book –and buying it – by its cover?

Still a Snipe Hunt

Younger, tech-savvy folk might not want to admit it, but when actual people were in charge we managed to have accurate systems for searching and retrieval, for validation and reference. One didn’t have to go far to find someone who could explain the system. You were one summer afternoon away from the Vaults of All Human Knowledge…and from all the Horror you could handle. One simple reason was book cover art.

Ahh, the Good Old Days… when monsters roamed the paperback displays and color shouted genre.

King

The real bottom line in retail book selling is that books are judged by their covers in a serious and instantaneous way that has dire consequences. Says Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) in a 2013 article for The Huffington Post: “ ‘Our brains are wired to process images faster than words…When we see an image, it makes us feel something.’ A great cover, he says, can ‘help the reader instantly recognize that this book is for them.’ ” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

In other words, it connects the reader to the content – to expectations that include genre. That can lead to a purchase, even if the author is unknown.

But it can also make inferences about the level of faith the writer and/or publisher has in the work, the quality of editing and writing within, and provoke gut reactions to the book as a product. Continues Coker, “In addition to promising what a book will deliver, the [cover] image also promises (or fails to promise) that the author is a professional, and that the book will honor the reader’s time.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/book-cover-design-indies_n_3354504.html )

So why aren’t we seeing more commitment from publishers? Are they intentionally trying to disguise Horror? Is this part of the movement to eliminate genre altogether, to “improve” the overall Literary quality of our writing, or a denial of our denial that all writing is Literature (of some sort)?  Or is it simply a part of a larger manufactured truth manipulated to prove to everyone that Horror (as a target genre) is changing and has lost its teeth? If Horror falls, is another genre next?

Yet good Horror is toothy. It’s edgy. And it’s typically not Literature. So why are we trying so hard to herd all writers into the same corner, starting with the book cover? It’s not going to improve literacy, book sales, or the quality of the writing.

I still buy Horror, and so do others. When we find it. It is simply more disappointing when the cover seems artless and flat, when it doesn’t invite you to hold it in your hands, to caress it, and clutch it to you when the world intrudes. It also doesn’t make it stand out on the shelf…from all of the thousands of others.

Working in a retail bookstore has been a blessing for the reader in me. It’s helped me “happen” across new Horror and new Horror writers without the very prejudiced opinions of publishing house marketing departments.

I don’t have to worry that Stephen King might be fulfilling a contract agreement or personal favor he couldn’t get out of by recommending a title, I don’t have to feel manipulated by “bestseller” lists, or have titles pushed at me. But it has been an exercise in frustration in setting out to find Horror on any given day.

And even when I find it, if I don’t buy it immediately, it still tends to disappear almost as quickly as it is discovered, sent back to publishers for not selling, or purchased but not scheduled to be replenished…never mind the rhythm of my paychecks. This means that a Horror fan must be a predatory bookstore regular…prowling the aisles in search of the next book, willing to purchase immediately (pounce), put the item on hold (stalk), or order a copy unseen (track).  It means we must be able to find it and find it fast.

But it also means that in today’s environment of wanting it all handed directly to us, we must become diggers. We have no choice but to research our own genre ourselves and root out all of the information we can like miners in a dark tunnel… because we are in fact alone. Horror is still a genre… a niche read… and experts on the genre with author names and titles and genre history at their fingertips are still somewhat rare.

Publishers seem to be in a trance, dazed and wandering about mumbling that Horror is dead and nobody buys it. So marketing departments are happily tucking it between non-traditional bookcovers, disguised as …gag….popular fiction.

Not only has our section been eradicated in the erroneous belief that Horror has gone Literary or just gone, but it is decorated like something that sits next to The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath.

springtime  broken

What’s a Horror fan to do? Like long-playing records (now coquettishly called “vinyl”), Horror has often been bought and read because of the covers… But the truly fabulous, eye-catching art that screamed “Horror Novel…Beware of Nightmares Within!” are gone. Those magnificent illustrations have absconded to Science Fiction and Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Comics, and Young Adult fiction…leaving Horror with uninspired cover art that does not distinguish the genre from the run-of-the-mill. It doesn’t say “see me” or “hold me” or “luxuriate in my imagination.” It says “I promise to not clash with your fifty shades of white décor,” and “no one has to know you like tentacles”…

Why is this?

Tentacles Anonymous. One Day at a Time.

Some of it has to do with costs (like paying actual artists and reproduction expenses which by default then are not going to someone else), and not much is invested in things that don’t have a reputation of selling. But we have to convince publishers that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy issue: that if we can’t find Horror we don’t buy Horror.

Vibrant cover art with splashy images can help us see it, and can warn readers in search of a cozy mystery off it. The fact that Horror people also tend to be cyclical purchasers expanding their collections at pause-points of the year – like before a big storm, ahead of the summer vacation, Halloween – doesn’t always help, especially if a book is published and has its sale trial during an off time. But such knowledge can also be a marketing boon…if a publisher uses it.

Therefore we also have to remind publishers that it helps to have Horror “come out” when it is most likely to be remembered, sought out, and displayed by merchants – like at Halloween, or riding the coat tails of summer movie blockbusters. And it helps to issue it in a format we can afford – paperback, even mass-market…because we also tend to be the working poor.

All of this is alleviated if we can simply find it because it is decorated to be seen. And this is especially true now that so much Thriller/Suspense and Psychological Suspense is snarfing on our genre images to punctuate their covers…

Nor does it help to force Horror into a Literary box before it is ready. While much of the genre is experimenting with better craft and broader audiences, we all need to be more honest here: Horror is and always will be a niche audience. Far too many people want to live in their own genre bubbles; they are not interested in being converted nor are they happy about being tricked. Meanwhile, ignoring the audience that does want Horror is genre suicide.

What publishers need to rethink is this whole “genre-less” environment thing… It does not lead to more people discovering more books and authors, to higher and broader sales. Trust me: I work in a bookstore. People come to find something they want…a formula they find satisfying – whether it is classics, cozy mysteries, romance or fan fiction and military science fiction, elves, dwarves, or superheroes or poetry. They don’t look at the publisher imprint. They don’t care if the writer has a degree. They don’t know who Raymond Carver is. They might not even know anything about Critical references to Hemmingway. They wrinkle their noses, they gawk at the prices and mutter something about Amazon when neither they nor ourselves can find what they want. And one of the most requested things is…The Horror Section.

Be still my heart….

That’s right. Our fans are die-hards, and they are collectively in disbelief that the Horror section is not only gone, but remains gone. Sometimes they think they found it when they happen across the letter “K” in general fiction, until they realize the three bays are only the current catalogs of King, and Koontz. They wander for hours before dragging their exhausted bones to Customer Service like wanderers in a desert to ask “where the heck is the Horror?”

(Hey, I have a solution. Everybody out there writing Horror….quick… change your last name to start with a “K”… Take my Horror section will ya….)

Meanwhile, imagine my frustration when I have to say…”there is no Horror section. It is all out there. Somewhere.”

Keep in mind, some of us are getting old and memories fail. Names sometimes defy my speedy recollection. If only I had a section, I murmur like a mantra…I could go right to specific authors and say “this – this is GOOD”… But no. And all too often when I do remember a new title or name, the book is not there because nobody found it and it didn’t sell so it went back.

art of

Horror Writers Unite!

It may take authors to put pressure on Publishers. That may mean that authors have to take the creative bull by the horns and actually be ok with what they write. It may mean that an author has to argue with an editor about “possibilities” versus “realities.”

Note to Publishers and Horror authors: what we as readers and retailers need to buy and sell Horror is Horror that is identifiable.

That means that in lieu of an actual, let’s-make-life-easy Horror Section, we need genre codes. Visual cues…

We need to be able to spot our authors buried in the stacks of popular fiction. We need to find them when they are old, and when they are new. We need to know we are looking at Horror… not a Literary work with a handy set of (surprise!) Horror conventions.

Horror fans really are a forgiving, fun-loving bunch. We are fine with kitsch when the story is good. We are ok with pulp. And we admire the well-crafted miracles of any Poe or Lovecraft we discover. So we forgive any author trying to up their game, following the advice of marketing people who think sales will follow in confusing the public.

But we are your fans. Please stop trying to blend in. Unless you want a garage full of first editions of your book. Demand your audience be able to find you and that spectacular best seller you are sitting on.

Demand book covers that will telegraph your genre to your waiting and hungry audience. There is a lot to be said for judging a book by its cover. And that works both ways.

Horror Publishers Wake Up!

And if PUBLISHING wants a solution, if it really wants to sell books…quit messing with the genres. Books are just like anything else. It’s not the quality items that make your sales goals…it is the simple stuff. The cheap stuff. Those of us who buy it make it possible for you to pay the True Artists their Mega Paychecks. Give us our stuff. We want it back.

Really. Once upon a time our purchase of genre Horror supported whole subsidiaries and imprints, supported midlist authors, pulpy magazines, rank and file editors, bookstores, printers, artists, reviewers, critics…Hollywood… Put it back! It might not be as lush as before, but if economists are to be believed and cost of living is really relative to pay throughout history, then we should be able to finesse it. Right?

And bring back our artists! We do want monsters and tentacles and screaming girls and evil scientists and dark cemeteries on our covers – not “pretty” artwork from other genres. We do want covers that tell us we are in Horror-land – the reds, the blues, the greens… just like old movie posters…the day-glo stuff, the textured stuff, images that announce a Horror fan is reading Horror… The grunge fonts, the dripping letters…

God, I miss the ‘80s.

And all I have to do to see what could-have-been is go to the Young Adult Section.

Because Young Adult publishers and marketing departments are doing it RIGHT.

Artwork to die for.

Artwork to put in a picture frame.

Artwork that shouts “find the print!” “Who’s the artist?” “I have to have that book!”

girl  Asylum

Maybe if adult Horror fans felt like publishers had a little faith in the product…

It’s not too late to turn it around. Print is not dead and neither is Horror. And better book covers is one of the easiest ways to get our genre mojo back. We want color, we want texture, we want artwork, and… we want category identifiers on the spine – the kind that say HORROR in large letters, repeated on the back at the bottom or top of the blurb. HORROR. All caps. All the time.

It’s the way we find our genre. It’s the way we roll when we have a little spending money in our pockets.

So, publishers… You want in on this action? Or not?

 

GOOD HORROR I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY FOUND

(Nonfiction)

Grant, John. Spooky Science: Debunking the Pseudoscience of the Afterlife. New York: Sterling, c2015.

Jones, Stephen, ed. The Art of Horror: an Illustrated History. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, c2015

Travis Langley, ed. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead. New York: Sterling, c2013.

Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, c2015.

(Anthologies)

Datlow, Ellen, ed. The Monstrous. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Books, c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, ed. Classic Horror Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2015.

Dziemianowicz, Stefan, comp. Great Ghost Stories: 101 Terrifying Tales. New York: Fall River Press, c2016.

Guran, Paula, ed. Mermaids. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Guran, Paula, ed. New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2015.

Jones, Stephen. Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft and Others. London: Titan Books, c2013.

Matheson, Michael. The Humanity of Monsters. Toronto, Canada: ChiZine Publications, [c2015].

(Novels & Single Author Anthologies)

Aronovitz, Michael. Phantom Effect. New York: Night Shade Books, c2016.

Baker, Jacqueline. The Broken Hours: a novel of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Talos Press, c2016.

De Kretser, Michelle. Springtime: a Ghost Story. New York: Catapult, c2014.

Kupersmith, Violet. The Frangipani Hotel. New York: Spiegel  & Grau, c2015.

Lebbon, Tim. The Silence. London: Titan, c2015.

Reid, Iain. I am Thinking of Ending Things. New York: Scout Press, [future projected release June 2016 – with an excellent cover on the advance copy, by the way]

The Haunting of America’s House: Have We Killed the Ghost Story?


One of the most difficult subgenres to write successfully in Horror is the ghost story, and through a century of technological intrusion and religious minimization, the task has not grown any easier. Speculation abounds: have we exhausted the medium? Have we outgrown the concept? Has everything already been done better than we can do it today?

Critics are not sure. Some are of the opinion that the masters of the medium have come and gone along with the “perfect storm” of timing – specifically the literary finesse of a better classically educated writer and the vulnerability of an audience enduring that absolution of all sin – the technological twin projectiles of electricity and the industrial revolution. Others speculate that we are somewhere on the cusp of reinvention because “in short, genres evolve – often through the influence of both aesthetic and economic factors” (Bailey 108).

Either way, there is a truth to acknowledge: our ghost stories – American ghost stories – are failing. Miserably. The question I have, is why? The British in particular are still pulling it off. And although we even might have bested them briefly, in the early 1900’s, when Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Francis Marion Crawford, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James were still part of mainstream reading, we’ve lost that precious story-telling thread: the connective tissue between the ghost and what it represents.

Real Ghosts Scare People

The last time I read a really good ghost story, it came from Iceland. The book was I remember You by international crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir… I cannot praise this book enough for bringing the power of the ghost story back to mind, and any writer who gives me nightmares is welcome on my permanent bookshelf.

How did she do it? She did it by invoking the power of local folklore muddied with the trope of the True Story, and weaving it together with the most famous of the ghost story conventions – the search for revelation and justice, creating empathy for the ghost even as she created terror of its presence. Sigurðardóttir used the possibility of a real ghost of a real person to scare the sound sleep out of us. And it worked. Because real ghosts scare people…not their image, but their possible reality and what that means for all of us.

So what are we missing?

I didn’t have to go far for the answer: we are missing the ghost. Somehow, we have managed to drift away from the actual haunting and turned the haunted house into a circus of absurdity. We have taken one of the most powerful representations of world view in Literature and neutered it, drenching it in distracting contests of evil that by their combined sheer weight, make truth and accountability impossible.

Too many times our ghost fiction is relying on a kind of absolute worst-case scenario… as in Dale Bailey’s recounting of “David Martin’s 1997 crime novel Cul-de-Sac, which pays deliberate homage to the tradition of the haunted house tale. The ill history of the eponymous house reflects the protocols of the formula: Cul-de-Sac began as a vast pre-Civil War hotel that drained the resources of its owner, served at various times in its history as a military hospital and an insane asylum, and became the site of a brutal decapitation murder. The locale is rumored to be the home of Satan, and visitors hear strains of a ghostly piano and encounter infestations of flies…” (Bailey 109).

Ye gods!

This is what the American ghost story has morphed into. And if you don’t think it is a parody of itself, read the classics, or another crime writer like Sigurðardóttir, for example – whose more subtle handling of crime and ghost are lightyears ahead of our game and seated in the real tradition of ghost story telling.

It is almost as though we have lost faith in our own ability to conjure up a ghost that can adequately scare us on its own. And maybe we have. Clearly we are not doing it right: what is more terrifying than the possibility that the afterlife is not at all what we expect it to be, and that any of us could become trapped where we don’t want to be – away from the eyes of God, away from the comfort of others, away from all chance of absolution, alone with our sins and ourselves, denied even the judgment and punishment that ends it all?

What has happened to us? The answer seems to be rooted in that infamous and ongoing battle with Britain over ruins.

That’s right. Piles of stone. Because we don’t have any. Whine, whine.

Being bereft of actual historic ruins that date back into the earliest history of man, we’ve had to improvise. For most of us, home is cookie-cutter suburbia. And when we ran out of ancient Indian burial grounds and curses, when we stopped being world savvy and we rediscovered and fully embraced Poe and his Fall of the House of Usher it occurred to us: maybe it wasn’t about the ghost after all, maybe it was the house…the home, the family, the American Dream…

What if the haunted house is the stand-in for our own twisted sense of entitlement? Eureka…

Apparently, that is most certainly something we could sink our teeth into. Says Bailey, “as long as houses remain a central symbol in American culture, our writers are likely to inhabit them with the anxieties of our day-to-day lives” (109).

This is bad news for traditional ghost story lovers. The promise is one of mundane familiarity, of boring detail, of the self-centered spoiled brat spawned in effigy as the Me Generation (I can say that being born in the thick of it), of – even worse – a kind of revisionist historical view. We have successfully re-written our past out of our spectral fiction. And we have excised the Literary root along with it. We managed to convince ourselves that the ghost is secondary… a mere appendage to wave at our vanishing birthright.

In lieu of castles, abbeys and moors, we went straight to our three-car garages and 900 square foot living rooms. We choose to mourn our own poor choices instead of taking responsibility for them, finding our worst fears materializing in our pantries and mud rooms and personal gyms… Why deal with the uncomfortable truths when you can sit on your overstuffed couch and convince yourself you earned it and the gigantic flat-screen TV guaranteed to blind any ghost in the room?

See, what I find truly sad, is that here we have an opportunity as writers to re-awaken our collective sense of responsibility by invoking the traditional ghost story. And we abdicate. We default to security cameras and found footage.

Certainly, we don’t have those awesome castles and moody moors… but we do have historic tragedies, nationally protected battlefields, ghost towns (ironically), and some pretty awesome and eerie scenery of our own. We don’t have to lurk in a covered bridge to imagine angry peoples cheated of their own heritages, to understand beheaded horsemen, exploited immigrants, stranded pioneers, massacred natives, massacred miners, fires, explosions, collapses, fraud, intimidation, theft, murder, financial ruin, domestic abuse, suicides… we’ve had them all right here without a single castle or downed abbey. For every crime there is an offender and a victim. And every one of us lives our lifetimes built on blood.

For certain, many ghost stories are meant to be nothing more than campfire tales. But do we need more than that to summon the kind of depth that follows us into the dark? The Critics think so. And they may have a point.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Boo. Boo Hoo.

Are all great ghosts Literary? Certainly not. But most of the best ghost stories are, even when they are not canon-class. Ghosts are always the after-image of something we have done… A ghost without a backstory is just a special effect. And we have seemed to embrace that formula which by its nature excludes the very humanity of ghosts and conjures unlikely scenarios to magically summon their presence in a plot. The focus is on the family-as-victim – more often the White Anglo Saxon Protestant family as victim. And to clearly not make things racist, the ghost is typically  entangled with legends of an anglo witch, a dead (or alive) psychotic murderer, or the very Devil himself.

We don’t know how to successfully include history or other peoples in our haunted houses without sounding trite. So we just simply don’t. And in creating so much of this kind of two-dimensional fiction, have we killed the American ghost story?

We’d have to turn out the lights to see… yet we are always in possession of artificial light, so we can better enjoy our artificial values. Does this mean despite the prolific dominance of technology that we are still really afraid of ghosts? That we have more than a few skeletons rotting in our closets which we are too afraid to acknowledge? I think it does.

Today the American ghost story is all hype, flash and bang with no substance. We are wrapped up in and consumed by our own sense of loss and fear of the future. What started out in the 1900’s with promise has all but languished on American bookshelves of late, victim of its own failed promises. Or maybe it is the premises that have failed.

Really. It’s Not the House That’s Haunted.

The first time I heard that phrase it turned me a bit on my ear. It was kind of thought-provoking, an interesting theory about ghosts, a reversion to “the purposeful ghost” of the seventeenth century whose dogged appearance was motivated by “the need to address wrongs, warn of danger, reveal secrets, or cure sickness” (Bennett 18). Such promise lies with those ghosts. Such promise in the phrase itself… But then we really tinkered with it, and before long it also smacked of our American penchant for “evil” … the need for speed in accelerating our terror element beyond the capacity of the story itself. And once we get started, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Here we are not revising or expanding the ghost story, we are simple trampling it. And the truly weird thing is that we are using things we profess to not even believe in to do it. Is it any wonder we aren’t scaring anyone?

One has to ask why a country so at ease in dismissing the interaction of God, Heaven and Hell in real life cannot keep our mitts off of Pure Evil for Evils’ sake (even in our fiction). And why is that supposed to scare anyone? If the Reformation purged the reality of ghosts from our midst (a view coincidentally enhanced by the electric light), how can any mere ghost hope to advance an agenda without it? Yet if we don’t accept the duality of magical thought – that neither good nor evil exist without the other – have we not reopened the very argument the Reformation was meant to seal forever? And doesn’t a reluctance to advance at least the questions asked by religion sabotage the ghost before it can walk? Is that why we dust off the devil so often?

Tradition would suggest so. Because the ghost story tradition is all about accountability, justice for the marginalized. If The Devil Made Us Do It, are we not absolved? Blameless? Innocent as newborn babes?

The British writers of spectral fiction clearly know this is a cop-out. And let’s face it, the Reformation started in their neighborhood. If anyone was going to be derailed by Protestantism in the ghost story, it should have been them. Yet there is no such disorientation in British ghost stories. The weird gyrations are all ours, and that makes the explanation all the more personal.

From what I see as a reader of ghost stories, the problem is the American aversion to the confession of sins. Maybe it is our Protestant roots showing, or maybe it is our more alarming contemporary tendency toward historical revisionism. But the ghost story is all about confronting our own sins and the American ghost story has morphed into a blame-the-victim plot point. By victim, I do not mean the haunted person, or the haunted house; no, our victim has become the ghost itself and everything it stands for

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

We do not seek to empathize with the ghost, to solve the mystery, to bring it peace, to wish it well, to coax it into The Light. Instead, the hapless spirit becomes the tool of something bigger, larger, worse. The Worst. The Worst EVER.

That way, we can set out to banish it. We can blow up the house it inhabits, the very same way our dreams have been imploded by those we cannot quite reach as they build ever larger mansions above us.

Remember, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s poor us. We are the victims.

Yet we built the house. And the house is the problem.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There. You. You Who?

In his Critical look at the ghost story, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey states, “The contemporary haunted house formula dispenses not only with ghosts, but the ontological uncertainty – did anything spectral really happen? … Instead, the formula opts for a flatly prosaic depiction of the supernatural in which the house itself is sentient and malign, independent of any ghosts which may be present (and very frequently none are)” (5-6).

Vengeful ghost trouble? We’ll fix you… Responsible for building a wondrous country on a hideous legacy of genocide, child labor, slavery, and misogyny? No problem. Tah dah! It was the house…Evil happens. Not our fault then. Still not our fault.

Yet the house itself is a “tell.” And it is telling on us.

Says Bailey, “…the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance…In part, I think, the answer grows out of the clash between American ideals and realities, the three or four key themes in American life to which the house, and especially the haunted house, naturally lends itself as a vehicle for commentary…Good haunted house novels… often provoke our fears about ourselves and our society, and, at their very best, they present deeply subversive critiques of all that we hold to be true – about class, about race, about gender, about American history itself. In part because of the formulaic construction, such novels frequently employ their settings not only to indict American culture, but to suggest ways it might be profitably reformed” (5-6)

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

So the house itself, in becoming home, also became a symbol of the American Dream and by its placement in neighborhoods, its illustriousness of walls, it defines who gets to participate, who is nurtured by the Dream and who is devoured by it, or worse, who is sacrificed in its name.

The irony is that no one is immune. Forget the ancient Indian burial ground: we are our own personal devils. Continues Bailey, “The afterglow of the American Revolution had barely worn off when a new generation of American writers began to suspect a startling and unpleasant truth: that they had toppled King George only to raise King Dollar in his stead” (7). The centuries since, have informed all of us that equity was not going to be part of the promise kept.

So where is the writer in all of this? Why aren’t we hearing a voice of outrage cast in luminous ectoplasm?

Maybe we’re just too busy trying to baffle ’em with bullsh**t. Or maybe we are afraid we won’t get published if we call it like we see it. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

Chaos is Not Enough

In reading Literary Critic S. T. Joshi’s critical essay on Horror author Peter Straub, I found phrases that seem to apply alarmingly frequently to the modern American ghost story. For example, we too often neglect to “account adequately” for a viable origin of the supernatural element, (Joshi 204), or even occasionally fail to commit to whether the supernatural is even really involved at all, leaving the reader to stew over the reality of events (205), or we sabotage the climax with an anti-climax in some misconstrued attempt to surprise the reader with some misbegotten truth (205). Too often we share what Joshi calls “an awkwardness in writing a plausible conclusion’’ (206), or even a “penchant for happy endings… [including] the complete elimination of the horror, whether it be natural or supernatural” (207).

Why are we doing this? And if it isn’t ignorance or ineptitude, is it fear?

In my opinion, Joshi nailed all of our coffins closed with one essay. American ghost stories today come across as lazily conceived, half-baked, over-anticipated opportunities for special effects. And if you love ghost stories – really love them – you know that the worst always happens in your own head.

The classics were written with this very awareness. We were not plagued with mundane details, the minutiae of ordinary life and boring characters designed to lull us into a false sense of security… because why pay to read what we all already live? Yet it seems we can’t stop ourselves. And the result is mind-numbing; we see more and more ghost story fiction that seems to be taking its tradition from screenwriting in place of Literature, utilizing the idea of the mind-as-camera, foisting us –willing or otherwise – into the long preamble of a supernatural event being developed as we read, absent of creative control and abandoning all hope of Literary intent.

Once again I discovered useful and appropriate phrasing within the context of another Joshi essay, this time on Robert Aickman, addressing the need for logic in supernatural fiction. Because I also see the obvious suspension of logic being used as an excuse for “mystifying” the reader, or dazzling the reader with alleged arcane detail that simply has no connection to events that the reader can make or appreciate…as though making the reader murmur, “I don’t get it” is supposed to imply that the writing is “deep” when it is just convoluted.

Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Joshi in his quote of L.P. Hartley, “a master of weird fiction…” who stated, “The ghost story writer’s task is the more difficult [i.e., than the detective story writer’s] for not only must he create a world in which reason doesn’t hold sway, but he must invent laws for it. Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (220).

So have we ruined ghost fiction and the story of the haunted house? I think not, but it’s time for a change from our current trajectory. We have explored this spur of the track as far as it goes and it is a dead end (no pun intended). We have to stop the chaotic dance that makes our spectral fiction read like a cartoon and Hollywood salivate. We are fiction writers, and our tradition is to poke the beast, not bribe it.

Is our haunted house really the American Dream? Maybe. But nobody likes a whiner, and right now, to write our ghosts disguised as mourning the ease of access to the American Dream which was itself a unique phenomenon in an unrepeatable period of American history is no less than whining. Our ghosts are better than that, and so are we. Maybe we should look at the poetic justice of it… And channel ghosts – real ghosts – in much smaller, age-appropriate houses.

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.

Bennett, Giliian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

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

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa. I Remember You: a Ghost Story. New York: Minotaur Books, c2012.

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


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

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

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

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Weird Tales Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Central Casting

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

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

Stop the insanity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

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

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

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

Recommended Websites:

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

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

 

Women in Horror Month: Have Women Changed What We Read?


Just in time for Women in Horror Month, I happened across an interesting statement that women now dominate the publishing industry. I also find it interesting that this has led to vocal concerns about what this change in leadership means.

Here in the genre of Horror fiction, we have been blessed with two very capable female editors for some time now – specifically Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran. They are at the top of our game, shaping and representing the genre in so many positive ways. How, I wondered, could this be a problem?

The Power of the Press, or How Many Tentacles Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

We may not like it, but it is publishers and the editors who decide what books and stories will be found in print. They are the kings and queens of content, representing the very censorship they espouse to abhor; they are star-makers, for good or ill.

Particularly in the Horror genre, the impression has been left in many women’s minds that this is male territory. We tend to believe that we are on a slanted playing field, and that it is either men or women who work under them who are holding us back. We default to Young Adult fiction, slip over to thrillers, hide behind ghost stories. We make excuses for our failures, when maybe what we need to do is re-dedicate ourselves to fitting into the genre…Because like the footprint of Big Foot, evidence that things have not improved has been lately harder to find. Part of the reason is indeed related to changes at the top, bottom, and sides of our genre.

It may come as a surprise for many to realize that women have been historically knee-deep in the publishing industry for a very long time – as writers, editors, and publishers. But what most don’t realize is that women really were formerly relegated to working with women’s writings and/or under male supervision, and continually berated by male Critics. It is only now that women have infiltrated the entire industry. This has to mean something. Female editors – tending often to be readers if not writers themselves – have their own reasons for wanting to contribute to the evening out of that playing field. Surely this means change.

And at long last, there is more than one tentacle wrapped around that light bulb and vocal witnesses holding the chair.

According to David Comfort in his book An Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013), “Publishing today is a matriarchy. There are many reasons for this…nearly two thirds of books are purchased by women. A recent Associated Press survey found that they account for 80 percent of the fiction market” (190).

What effect has this had on that fiction market, the reader, the quality of our contemporary fiction? How has this affected our genre of Horror? The mind boggles at the possibilities…

In the earlier days of fiction, women were more often content generators – writers of specialized fiction for specialized magazines and newspapers – and support personnel for much of the same. In those days, every task, hobby, and function was sharply divided between the world of men and the world of women.  One did not stray out of one’s circle of influence; one had a role to maintain, a reputation to keep. Specific books were written largely by women, for women. Women had Sensation Fiction, men had Literature.

That in itself affected who read what, what saw print and under what circumstances. So doesn’t it make logical sense that if conditions have changed and more women are in positions of publishing and editorial power that what the reader reads and who does the reading would also have changed? Is that why more women are reading fiction than men? Or is there a more insidious reason?

According to Comfort, “[Waxman agent Jason Pinter] suggests that perhaps men read less because the titles available to them are chosen by women agents and editors” (190).

The implication is that women in publishing have pirated the genres and groomed them into – heaven forbid – women’s fiction.

Not that women don’t get it. Women have been reading what men prepared for them for years… But it sounds a bit like the shoe pinches on the other foot.

But what if they are right? What if women are changing the genres?

Is this a bad thing? Wasn’t it time to change the light bulb?

What’s Good for the Goose Fits Nicely in Tentacles

I find the question most interesting. Most genres naturally slant toward one gender or the other in content. We don’t see much male Romance nor Romance written by males, we tend to maintain male-dominated Science Fiction (both in authors and protagonists), we evenly divide Sherlock Holmes from female PI’s and police detectives in Crime and Mystery. In Horror it still trends toward male protagonists, and male-authored novels except in the traditional ghost story sub-genre, which flirts with Gothic Romance when it doesn’t go all Lord Dunsany.

Sure there are exceptions. But it is the rarity of the instance that causes the speculations to rise. One crack does not the glass ceiling break.

Who can say why – despite more women being in “control” of more published works – that more men are known by name in the genre than women? Are men performing better? Or are we simply predisposed to believe that out of habit? And if we do blindly believe it, has it affected our reading and publishing choices?

Sometimes it has to do with genre formula. Sometimes it has to do with how the Muse dictates it. Sometimes it is more a matter of convenience or character believability.

But one fact remains true: there remains a clear reluctance in men to read female-generated fiction in male-dominated genres. Why is this, and do men have a point when they interpret women’s writings as prose only women can identify with or feminist psychobabble?

When women write, are we not writing through a feminine perspective that has an exclusive feel? Is it because as women writers we automatically assume that men won’t even pick up our stories, let alone like them? In angst, do we just go on and write for that default female audience?

Audience and our awareness of it is very important – even in fiction…maybe especially in fiction. I have begun to wonder if there should be – at some point – a time when Feminist fiction is outdated, outmoded, and no longer needed. But then I am reminded that despite advances in hiring women in publishing and having two awesome women editing Horror fiction, we have not yet quite arrived in Horror, although we are ever so much closer. Some of our number are still learning to think better of ourselves for a reason. And maybe just maybe that means male readers are right, and we are still not mastering the universal voice we need to have in our entire body of female-authored fiction. Maybe we are accidentally on purpose ignoring our potential male audience.

As a woman, I constantly ask myself: why is it that I can read a male-authored story with a male protagonist in a male situation and still identify with that protagonist and still like that author, yet many female authored stories alienate even me? What are we doing differently? And why is it that sometimes it doesn’t matter?

Maybe it has more to do with the writer’s intended audience than we want to admit. Doesn’t reading opposite gender-slanted stories seem awkward? Don’t we quickly and unapologetically put them down?

And does it make a difference if a writer believes everyone and anyone will read his or her words on a deeply subconscious, molecular level? If that belief is reinforced by an anonymous if not general consensus?

I think that men have a valid difference in their reading preferences, because as a woman writer and reader of Horror fiction, so do I. From sentence structure to pace, from content to protagonist, men prefer their fiction differently than most women. Genders tend to process experiences differently, so doesn’t it make sense that genders would read and relate them differently as well?

Women tend to prefer background and character development. Men tend to prefer action and character tests. Women are generally satisfied with the suggestion of violence, men generally want nothing sugar-coated. Women often value the details of sex, men very frequently want the whole romantic thing left to the imagination…even if every cover illustration suggests otherwise. Men are visual, women are intellectual. We’ve heard it all before…

These are all arguments formulated in earlier times that still have at least a germ of truth to them.

So what do we do with that? Does it mean that woman (by their professional ascension) have ruined men’s fiction?

I don’t tend to think so. Particularly in Horror, we have been long overdue for more Literary influence in the genre – especially in American Horror. Women have either brought that concern with them, or it coincidentally arrived at the same time as the New Critic – but either way, women have always trended toward the classics and Gothic Romance from our English Literary roots. As a result, what I see in female editing is a distinct trend of appreciation for craft and well-constructed stories which meshes nicely with male editorial preference for capably executed storytelling. We seem ever closer to the proper blend of homogenization that will truly elevate our genre.

But I do believe that we need that balance of male and female editors and publishers. Too many male editors is the reason so many women had legitimacy issues in our writing past. Isn’t it logical that at least subliminally there might be a little payback in play?

Women have been saying for years that if women are reading and writing more Horror, isn’t it at least interesting that more men than women tend to find honorable mention, if not publication?

To which many men retort, then they should write better Horror…and which may or may not be right.  It’s the statistic that is interesting. Especially if men do as Mr. Pinter theorizes and avoid female written, female-edited stories in any genre.

Horror, then, is an interesting genre in which to study the potential differences in the ways the genders read and write. Horror thrives upon the emotions that orbit violence – implied or otherwise. How that information is relayed does seem to depend on gender.

Raised By Women. With Tentacles.

One reason we shouldn’t be too alarmed by this trend of more women identified as contributing agents in the world of fiction publishing and another reason we shouldn’t feel threatened by it, is that women typically raise the bulk of us. Women teach us our first words, introduce us to books and storytelling, read to us, teach us to read and write, weave the folktales, myths and legends (both urban and urbane), even planting the seeds of our first childhood Horrors – losing Mom, not fitting in, being bullied, being chased by night monsters…

If we have any exposure to Literature, most likely we have Moms and the heavily female educational system to thank for it. We also have them to thank for the rebels who write superheroes and bloodthirsty monsters, romance and westerns, aliens and sleuths. Because whether we write to please them or to spite them, we write what we write because of their imagined presence somewhere in our minds.

And there is good news for those who fear a heavy female contingent of editors and what they might bring to the table.

Women, by and large, have been more lenient in their judgment about what people want to read versus what Critics want written. Women tend to sense that there is room for all of us on the playground. Some of this has been because women have at times found they were hazed a bit harder than male counterparts. Check any canon list and you will still find more male names than female ones. This doesn’t mean women don’t write as well as men generally, but it does mean many women are more comfortable in the subgenres and that many Critics of the past have found more to praise in men’s work Literarily than that of women.

Yet one cannot descend too deeply into that argument before one bumps up against the reality that those Critics were men of their time, and subject to the automatic belief that women did not have particularly educated thoughts, that women were not capable of critical thinking, and should not trouble their fragile minds and mental stability with complicated thoughts that distracted from domestic responsibilities. How, in their universe, could any woman write anything with Literary depth?

It has taken ever newer generations of Critics to realize the narrowness of that thinking, and to value the voice of Feminism in fiction – the inescapable cry for equality for race, religion, class, and gender, the Literary representative of the underprivileged, the marginalized, the missing and the forgotten, the children and the aged.

Isn’t it fascinating that so many women also labor in areas that resonate with equality for all? For instance, consider the field of Library Science, where there is always an endless battle against censorship, and the right of all people, all classes and all genders to read and write…

Inequality still lurks, even with the best of many men’s intentions. The proof remains in the pudding…pay discrepancies and fewer women in the board rooms are merely the most visible evidence. It is not much different in the world of writing. We still have a way to go.

Why else do women clutch at pseudonyms and anonymity in their writing if it is not a vain attempt to be judged merely upon writing talent? And if a body senses it, is not at least a ghost of it still there?

Times change. And part of that change is the reconsideration of genre writing as a potential source of some Literary writing. This is good for women and men. It means we are a little bit closer to looking at writing instead of who wrote it… (Pardon me, my Post-Structuralism is showing…)

But the most important thing is that if women have raised the bulk of all writers, why wouldn’t most of them edit with the same broad considerations? Is there a difference in a female editor who doesn’t like your work and a male editor who doesn’t like it? Aside from the occasional exception, I doubt it. Power of any kind has the added power to corrupt. There are good editors and bad, regardless of gender. Just because they don’t like your style or your particular story doesn’t make them evil…just human…

And if history has shown us anything, it is that women in any industry like variety. They appreciate capably written stories more than gender or subject. They defend the right to write, the right to be read, they loathe censorship.

I’m not sure I philosophically agree with Mr. Comfort. I don’t think we are more female-dominated in the publishing industry, but we are certainly more evenly infused. This cannot help but mean that women do indeed influence what we read. Perhaps they are also improving it. But we also need the input of male editors and agents to complete the transformation. Isn’t that sound biological reasoning?

Change is indeed everywhere. Who is to say if women are behind it, in front of it, or just running alongside? Change is good. And all genres seem in the midst of some kind of elemental metamorphosis that involves the whole publishing animal…

Horror seems to be…and like a pesky wet gremlin, it appears to be growing and getting better because of it. Can’t you feel it in the tentacles, slipping around your legs? Does it really matter if they are girlie tentacles?

Horror and the MFA in Creative Writing: Vanity Degree or Elevation of Genre?


I’ll be the first to admit my head was turned.

I was about to graduate, drunk with ambition and that sense of promise a newly minted college degree inserts into the psyche. It had been a long and perilous journey – the muse had almost drowned in other peoples’ opinions and swamps of guilt trips. But I had finally realized that writing wasn’t a dream – it was a vital part of who I am. Several professors had suggested I seriously consider pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. And I found myself seriously considering it.

At the precise moment a person realizes that they are a writer because they are a writer and not because someone else gives them permission, an insatiable hunger forms – the hunger for craft.

I know, I know. Most writing elitists would never believe it: the proof is in the pudding, they would say, most novice writing stinks — genre or otherwise. But amazingly enough, when a person starts to write they inevitably become part of a very old argument:

Can great writing be taught, and if so, should it?

Born This Way (or Not)

Believe it or not, this is actually part of an argument tossed about by Literary Critics – those crazy fiction fanatics whose job it is to dissect prose in the academic pursuit of the secrets of invention. They have ignited a firestorm of passionate discussion about what makes a writer a Writer of Literary standard – are they born with it? Is the birth of a Literary Work a spontaneous act of innate factors valued above the talents of a common writer who needs to be taught?

Critics are indeed Purists…the High Priests of Prose. They love and protect Literature, and see themselves as the most likely to find that answer.

But I wonder sometimes how far they think about what they are really saying.

If one looks at author biographies for Literary works, what one finds consistently is a group of  elite writers who grow up in some kind of informed community – other established Literary Writers, teachers, activists, printers and publishers, poets, religious groups, artists, philosophers…critical thinkers of their time.

In those groups the young writer is nurtured, mentored, emotionally supported. And being raised around the humanities boosts the moral imperative to create and to create powerful vehicles of communication and thought.

A far cry from what we offer young writers today. Or old ones, for that matter.

Today, we expect Literature By Divine Intervention… prodigies only are the real artistes… Everyone else is a hack.

No wonder most of us have fled to the genres. Why bother to try if your pedigree is going to be a factor?

Arts – of which writing is one – flourish in community more than in isolation. We learn from each other — successes and mistakes. We learn and share technique, we withdraw from the world and hang in enclaves that carry us through the creative doldrums and celebrate our victories as part of a community. We mentor each other, experiment with the limits of craft.

Except that today, most writers don’t. We get ‘A’s on papers early on, mystifyingly amazed looks from teachers, vague comments that encourage but tell us nothing, and are left to fantasize about writing…not to learn about it. We wind up eventually believing the myths created by people who either do not understand the tidal pull of the arts on the soul, or who (for our own good) wish to kill it. We work in jobs that eviscerate our imaginations, and use us up until there is nothing left to use to write – not even in our “spare time.”

We spend years trying to understand whether we are writers because we need to write, or whether we are writers only if we sell $20’s worth of fiction… Which sounds easy until you can’t find $20’s worth of magazines to submit to (i.e., that are accepting submissions and/or accepting them from unknowns). Just sayin’…

And that conundrum pushes us further into private hells that have no exit except in writing…so we do. We continue to write and practice writing badly because no one teaches us how to write well. No one teaches us how to properly construct a story, develop character, follow arcs, adjust tension, manage dialogue, or even defines what Literature IS and what it DOES.

We spend hours trying desperately to be in awe of The Classics and Literature Reading Lists, trying to scry from oceans of antiquated prose why everyone thinks this is GOOD…to figure out what teachers are REALLY looking for in term papers and literary analysis assignments….

We don’t know because none of this is taught.

In the Big Rush to not contaminate the “pool” of possible prodigies, we have thrown away generations of writers who just needed sustenance and common instruction in technique.

How sad is that?

But amazingly, we have the CIA to thank for considering education to be the key. In fact, the story is that if it weren’t for the paranoia of government officials about the Soviet Union outperforming the U.S. in the development of national Literature, we would never have gotten the Iowa Writers Workshop and its illustrious and original MFA program (number one in the country, mind you).

Literary-worthy Writers were examined, allegedly three were chosen, and their styles became the models for American Literature to emulate.

And it was exactly that discovery about style that began to un-turn my head about the MFA.

Yet this MFA position has taken the pendulum to the other side of the argument… Given enough money, ANYONE can be a writer by learning to write.

Maybe we just need rescue from these particular academics for a few moments…

Because after all of my research – and I did a lot of research – I was left with the question for MFA programs nationally: why are you teaching style instead of technique?

Writers come in various sizes of style. But we all have to learn technique.

Not so, think Critics… talent is innate. Yep, it is. But if no one ever taught me to hold a pencil and shape letters, how to form noun + verb + adjective, where and when to place a comma… So go ahead. Take away the crayons from your prodigies and let’s see how much Art you get.

Good or bad, I already have a style, thank you, and young writers deserve to find their own within and between the ghosts of the whole and entire scope of Literary choices. I don’t mind learning about a successful Literary Style, but I don’t want to be identifiable as a certain MFA program graduate – like I was a suit rolled out on a rack. I don’t want to write like someone famous….I want to write like me.

Needless to say… doubt began to erode my MFA dreams. I found myself stalling my old professors who kept asking where I had applied for an MFA.

The Assault on Speculative Fiction in MFA Programs (or Why I Remain a Genre Writer)

For me, part of the problem is that I love and write genre…maybe not strict genre, but genre nonetheless, which I discovered begets yet another complication for MFA students: one of the other kind of style. I am fine with being a genre writer. I like genre writing, although I also like Literature and enjoy my genres with the occasional Literary overtones. I am certainly not ashamed of writing Horror – at least, not anymore.

For years I found myself apologizing for what I do and who I am (“I’m sorry…I write Horror”) watching hopeful enthusiasm turn into crestfallen faces that had a serious similarity to the expression of disappointment. But these are people who don’t understand the genre, and worse – who seriously underestimate the Literary contributions of Horror. For centuries, Horror has been a constant driver of Feminist/Gender Literature and what used to be called Freudian but is now called Psychoanalytic Literature. It lurked throughout the Gothic Romances, exquisitely tortured the Victorians, exploded all manner of social issues using monsters and ghost stories.

Horror – even modern Literary Critics finally acknowledge, has the occasional work that exhibits the highest Literary merit. It is a genre with tremendous Literary potential, even as it produces the most generic and luxuriously sloppy pulp. Horror has range. And it has writers that ride that range.

Yet academia – being a product of government-style structure – moves ever so slowly. Educators (like MFA instructors) often spend their entire lives in the system, sometimes self-reinforcing their personal beliefs and rejecting new ideas that challenge their own. So instead of arguing the merits of both, they dismiss and insult…and most of the MFA program graduates who have shared their experiences in recent books reviewing MFA programs have stated repeatedly that instructors and mentor and professors had belittled, trashed, forbidden and condemned genre writing as…crap.

While it is admittedly not always Literature – sometimes joyously so – it is not “crap.” It is genre. It is formula. It is common at worst. It is also storytelling, albeit sometimes bad storytelling. But then, pulp writers are not trying to write Literature. Venom needs to be reserved for those who might roundly deserve it – and that most certainly is not a genre writer sitting in an MFA class hoping to learn better craft and Literary Technique.

So why do we have this abyss between Literature and Genre? What should be a peaceful and tolerant co-existence has been fanned into a Style War. And maybe there is so much genre-writing because writers can figure out genre writing a heckuva lot faster than they can figure out Literature and Literary Criticism.

Imagine if Literature and Literary Criticism were actually taught in high schools? Wouldn’t that education automatically bleed over into the genres? Up everyone’s game?

Is THAT what Literature Purists are afraid of? A little competition?

Well wheel out your prodigies then. It’s Junior Rodeo on…

The current environment of genre-bashing that seems rampant (if not bragged upon) by MFA programs is off-putting to say the least. And while many programs may prefer that it be thus and prefer to communicate that folks like me are not welcome unless I am willing to join in the genre-bashing and convert to Literature… I have to question their motives.

And that made me wonder if I DID set aside genre — just for the duration of the degree, just to learn craft – would it ruin my voice and inject the ghosts of dead American Literary Greats into my prose which I might not be able to exorcise? In other words, would it ruin writing for me?

Ultimately, I chose not to take the chance. Wrongly or rightly, I don’t want Raymond Carver in my head…Or any spark of the alleged other two (again, the rumor being that all MFA programs are modelled after three preselected American Literary giants, and the helpful application hint being that a writer needs to understand which writer which program emulates in order to find the best “match”).

I mean I’m sorry but all of a sudden we are talking about idols and how to mimic them – and not about craft, technique, LITERATURE. THEORY…. All after fielding a cost of some $35-50,000 for the privilege of sitting in a classroom…you know – where open-minded learning is supposed to take place…

How can I possibly be a rebel if you are teaching me to be a conformist? Even if we are talking style?

Again, I chose NOT to take the chance. Even when I found ONE program that proudly announced it supports Speculative fiction writers. Because it proudly denounced LITERATURE.

It’s like watching a tennis game. And all I wanted to do is learn better craft. To infuse my genre writing with Literary elements and improve as a writer. Silly me.

Silly Critics if they think that this academic solution is any kind of solution. We don’t need more polarizing thoughts and behaviors.

We writers – genre and Literary – need to be on the same side as the Literary Critic, who needs to be on the same side as writers who want to learn to be better writers.

We can’t help each other if we set up schools to teach novices how to insult each other in some giant argument from ignorance.

Proof in the Pudding (or, You Get the Monster You Create)

So I had begun to think that the authors of The Portable MFA were right: a writer just might be better off saving the money one would use for an MFA in Creative Writing and buy a better computer, more printer ink, more 20-lb white bond paper.

And such thinking was further reinforced when I tried an experiment of my own – reading the published works of MFA graduates. (Here, working in a retail bookstore became an advantage. And I purposely read “first” books by MFA grads whose programs I neither knew nor researched.)

The result was shocking. Shockingly disappointing. Sometimes even…bad. It was like reading genre fiction without the “spark” of genre…watered down, lackluster yet eerily “perfect” in construct…I couldn’t really argue with structure… But most of the time characters didn’t “pop,” prose didn’t engage, and I had to force myself to finish even ghost stories. Ghost stories for Poe’s sake! I mean didn’t these people read the British canon of Literature?

Like the Critic I am starting to wonder if we are doomed…

And I was left wondering how these writers managed a publishing contract. Perhaps it was one of those “networking” sessions with agents and other publishing professionals so heavily promoted as a benefit to MFA program participation. Maybe it is the high influx of MFA grads who (thereby) get jobs in publishing who “grease the wheels” for fellow MFA grads… Several books I used for research made mention of exactly that sad possibility, and which in turn in my mind further tarnishes just such a degree.

Doesn’t that reduce the lofty intention of the MFA from one of increasing our Literary output to a sad paper mill for a vanity degree?

And shouldn’t it matter to the writer IN an MFA Program that what gets published gets DESERVEDLY published?

I admit that I did not research the published fiction of MFA grads who went back to the genres… But if what I am seeing on the bookstore general fiction shelves is any indication of what MFA programs are churning out, then I am FINALLY glad that so much Horror has been re-disseminated into other genres. Because I don’t want any association with what I am seeing – not as a Horror writer. And no worries about Literature, either…one course in university –level Literary Criticism taught me that most of that MFA-produced stuff isn’t going anywhere but the remainders pile. One INTRODUCTORY COURSE in Literary Criticism, mind you…

No harm, no foul? I think differently. Because that was the final nail in the MFA coffin for me.

Maybe I should have title this essay “How I Decided Against Pursuing an MFA in Fiction…”

I only know I don’t want to be published at any cost. I want to be proud of what I write and be satisfied that it was good enough to pass the muster of traditional editing (from line to content). What I don’t need is an albatross hanging around my neck…an albatross that should have stayed in a drawer somewhere.

If that means no fame and fortune for me, at least I won’t live my life in embarrassment. Because there is a LOT to be said for the value of the editorial talents of the old major publishing houses. Especially if we have now simply created yet another Good Old Boy’s –type system that has nothing to do with Literary value.

Ironically, a lot of us unwashed masses laboring in the genres have THAT in common with Literary Critics. Isn’t it time we joined forces? Isn’t it time we got our game back?

I mean… not to be inflammatory, but in the name of healthy competition…The British have…

Just sayin’…

 

References

Affording the MFA [blog} https://affordingthemfa.wordpress.com/

The Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing Fiction: the Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. New York: Bloomsbury, c2003.

Kealey, Tom. The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: a Guide for Prospective Graduate Students. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., c2008, 2005.

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2009.

MFA vs NYC: the Two Culture of American Fiction. Chad Harbach, ed. New York: n+1 /Faber and Faber, c2014.

The MFA Blog. http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/

The New York Writer’s Workshop. The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Cinncinati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2006.

Olsen, Eric and Glenn Schaeffer. We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, c2011.

Wiedbrauk, Eileen. Speak Coffee to Me [blog] http://speakcoffeetome.blogspot.com/

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