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


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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Premise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Argument

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

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

Says Joshi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

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

Well when you say it like that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

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

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

 

References

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

“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.”

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

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

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.

Tales of Terror (and When They Aren’t)


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

Did we not understand what was intended?

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

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

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The Monstrous Assumptions of the Under-Published

Let’s face it. Most of us do not fully grasp the full array of conventions and subgenres available to us. And the reason is that unlike the more intimate times of Lovecraft and Poe, despite the internet and all the talk of global associations, Horror writers seldom know much about each other. In those earlier times there were far more editors to guide us, far more publications to be rejected from, and far more authors willing to comment on each other’s contributions to the genre. In other words, there was more – if not better – communication in the genre.

Today we operate more in the dark where constructive criticism is concerned. And we are alone in there with an enormous collection of how-to magazines and books…all of which offer solutions like our Great Aunt Margie’s Secret Family Recipe which (conveniently) seems to leave at least one important ingredient out. We have less formal education about Literature, about Literary Criticism, about elements of craft in creative writing, and seriously less education about the specifics and histories of different genres.

Speculative fiction is out on the fringe – not because it is unloved – but because when the Arts are under fire, it is the extremities that suffer most from amputation.

This means that novice writers in the genre are feeling their way along, not only wondering if they are being rejected for failures in mechanical mastery, but trying to predict what publishers are thinking and desiring…and those messages are typically mixed.

The rumor that genre is defunct and all writing is going popular and somewhat Literary is pure poison, injected directly into our genre roots. Literature never spawns from genre; genre spawns from Literature – sometimes carrying just enough Literary mastery that it remains Literature as well. Contemporary Literary writing that aims to sneak genre in typically fails because it satisfies neither potential audience. So why are we being encouraged to play at this style?

It may well have to do with the influence of the MFA and its multitude of graduates. It may have to do with publishers listening to rumors or trying to manipulate the market and sales. It may have to do with the whining of Critics who want a more pasteurized genre. But there are also new Critics who – like many of us – just want better genre.

So let us coalesce… Let us embrace our differences from the Lit crowd without excusing bad writing. Let’s recreate our writing groups, our Amateur Press Associations, our newsletters, our inner circle. And someday, we will get our publishing mojo back…once the internet exhausts its efforts to orchestrate our demise and discovers business is just no fun without us.

But let us do so wisely. Professionally. Educated about our own past and about Critical influences – intentional or accidentally imposed.

Because out there in the darkness stalks the New Literary Critic. And all of the free-for-all efforts, the gyrations, the morphing of shapes is leading to a bastardization of our genre which is being force fed to us as genre….

Take modern tales of terror.

Sometimes they are. And sometimes they aren’t.

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 Tales of Terror: What They Are When They Aren’t

The word “terror” today occupies a crowded space in our minds, and this is an unwelcome complication. For genre writers, it is a word corrupted and hijacked by modern events, twisted into political tools that steer our imaginations away from the Literary term that punctuates the Horror fan’s earliest adventures into classic works. Because believe it or not, to some degree the term has always been Literary; it is only that the literary interpretation has also begun to change.

Readers uneducated in our genre might automatically assume a book with “terror” in the title has international influences. But the word “terror” in the Horror genre is a an old term, previously attached to ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, to “strange” tales and tales of the “unknown” and “suspense.” It blossomed under the umbrella of pulp, flirted briefly with the Weird, and then slipped into that netherworld of fan-led connotation.

In other words, the word “terror” occupied a nebulous and changing place in our minds while we attempted to define our own genre both from the reading and the writing perspectives.  Until certain authors of canon-worthy fame began to see a need for categorization in our genre… and they raced ahead of any would-be Critics to establish some standards.

Both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft knew enough about Literature and Literary Criticism to understand that in order to capture the attention of Critics, there would have to be some standards in our genre, and if we ourselves could not identify those standards, then they probably weren’t there. So they set about through various essays trying to eke out a semblance of structure to the genre – which included naming the genre, and defining its subgenres and all relevant conventions.

The discussion continues to evolve – even today – with a good many very smart people reluctant to keep the name “Horror” as the main term for all cascading genre nomenclature.

Yet if our genre is to gain respectability and regain marketable tags that help genre readers find their authors, then the discussion must not only be had, but terms and definitions must be decided upon once and for all.

Lost in the translation is the modern Horror reader, awash in terms we all thought meant more or less the same things.

For all those years the word “terror” was ours to toy with. And toy we did. At no time did we assume it to be more than just an adjective meant to allude to a certain level of emotional disturbance to be harvested from the prose. We did not suspect it was morphing into a category that should have clear Literary delineations other than it having the capacity to scare and unsettle us. In fact, we still do not suspect anything… as evidenced by our own baffled expressions after reading “modern” tales of terror.

Typically, we find ourselves on the opposite side of reviews with the Critics. But if we dig deeper into Literary Criticism, we can understand how and why that is.

For one thing, it is perhaps a sad state of the Critic that being “scared” in our genre is of secondary – or even tertiary importance. In a broad and enlightening discussion on Weird fiction, Critic S.T. Joshi points out an important viewpoint of the Critic for our genre: “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify… [and] mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, no matter how artfully accomplished” (Joshi, Modern 2).

This means that our interests are sometimes diametrically opposed. Critics by and large – although passionate folk – are not typically emotional; they don’t read for the thrill – they read for the technical mastery behind the thrill. So what a Critic will call a “tale of terror” is far and away a different animal that what we in the genre want to call a tale of terror.

Critic S.T. Joshi, makes his Critical point this way: “The horror story (whether supernatural or not) somewhat untidily encompasses those works that focus on the emotion of fear, largely to the exhaustion or minimization of elements, emotions, or motifs – specifically a broad portrayal of character or of those human relations where fear of terror does not play a role [my emphasis]” (Joshi, Unutterable Gilgamesh to the end of the 19th Century, 3).

So when a Critic calls a tale a tale of “terror,” he or she is likely not calling it a Horror tale that the Horror fan expects to read. But if the publisher categorizes the collection of such tales as Horror, the miscommunication has begun: the Critic may adore it, and the Horror fan may sit all wrinkle-browed and frustrated. In just such a case as this, the Critical argument that not all in our genre is Horror appears to have traction, if not its own fan base.

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It’s also why we so often disagree with Critics – we are reading for entertainment and love something more when we discover something deeper sleeps under the prose. Critics, however, toss away the chills and thrills like they were old clothes, rummaging about our stories for what they savor – that something “more” that Literature contains by its own definition.  In the case of “terror” – and the Horror genre as a whole – that often includes unearthing a little realism and postmodernism in the works.

Terms like these typically mean a lot less obvious genre terror is going to go on. It means the work in question is doing Literary things, playing with prose, and embracing the secrets of being human and cloaking world view and statements about ourselves and our societies.

Remember that what is Literary is not necessarily Literature, but containing elements of Literature. Literature must meet a long list of Critical criteria that only academics study and fully appreciate, and which most often happen by happy accident in the bulk of writing. So while we may have many stories in our genre – including a handful of writers who are considered by many to be “Literary” – neither they nor their works automatically or even often ascend that ladder to those ebony towers of Literature.

But in order to be considered Literature there must be a nice, clinical list of criteria (see any word that looks like “critic” in there?) that is established and agreed upon by the whole school of Literary Criticism. This takes time, Critics, and debate. But it also takes a body of literature (small “L”) from which to deduce these criteria.

And believe it or not, the examination of that literature body and debate of its points has been going on for some time… sometimes by Critics themselves who do not like our genre…and sometimes by writers within it, or even new Critics who have decided to tackle our genre for the purposes of opening up the genre for Literary Criticism.

This is big, you know. HUGE.

But it means that things are changing in our genre, words are being confiscated for Literary Use. Terms are being established. Categories.

It is the job of the Literary Critic to establish categories in fiction.

It also means that when you pick up a book with “tales of terror” in the subtitle, it might well depend on who wrote them as well as what’s actually in them as to whether or not you wind up properly terrified or the Critics think you should have been.

An example is Joyce Carol Oates’ latest title – categorized as Horror fiction – The Doll-master and Other Tales of Terror. They are, and they aren’t. They are mildly disturbing, slightly unsettling. But they say more about humanity than actual emotional terror. The tales are not spine-tingling. They are not going to keep readers awake nights. But they will provoke thought and linger a bit longer in the mind than anticipated.  In other words, they do what Literary Critics want our genre to do, while forgetting what genre fans want it to do.

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For those who might not know, Oates is the Critical darling of our genre. And she is clearly a master of the craft of writing. But many Horror fans don’t really know her work, and most who know her work do not think of her as a Horror writer…She is clearly a Literary writer who uses supernatural elements to color her prose a lovely shade of disturbing.

And the truth of that is confounding.

A self-professed writer of “Gothic” fiction, Oates herself describes such work as designed to be “willing to confront mankind’s – and nature’s – darkest secrets” (Oates 6). This means that realism is at work in her writing – Literary elements over speculative ones.

And what is realism? According to Nick Mamatas in his essay “Depth of Field: Horror and Literary Fiction” (On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association), “Realism refers both to a set of techniques that simply render reality accurately, and to a genre of fiction that examines the psychology of characters existing in everyday life” with plots that utilize “intense, even minute descriptions of ‘how we live now’…”(114).

In other words, there is not the natural and familiar rhythm of genre fiction to stir the emotions. “Terror” comes at us in a completely different way with completely different results. Continues Mamatas, “’Where’s the payoff?’ you can hear the Horror fan crying out, and the answer is that there isn’t one, and that is what leads to the horror of the novel” (114).

While this sounds like a recipe for fan disappointment, it is part of the recipe for Critical interest. Here a writer must decide how to tell the story, and if that telling serves both the story and the writer’s own expectation of it.

This does not mean that all Critics like this type of tale when considering the genre. Says S. T. Joshi of Oates’ work in the genre, “in all humility, a number of the tales in Haunted and other Oates collections would never have been published were it not for their author’s celebrity” and that “Oates is manifestly more interested in human relationships than in supernatural phenomena, and oftentimes the latter serve merely as symbols or reflections of the former… “ (Joshi, Unutterable 20th and 21st centuries , 683-4).

Therefore, even for some Critics the trade-off of mechanics and mastery is not worth the dilution of too many genre standards – especially to the point that a tale runs the risk of leaving the genre entirely. This should give us hope…

But for now, all of us are too-frequently baffled by words we used to understand – readers and writers alike.  Words are our tools to communicate to readers and publishers what we are attempting to do in the genre. But definitions are now fluid. Words are showing up in titles, blurbs and book covers that don’t mean what we thought they meant.

And in just such a world, the growing problem in our genre is not living up to our own vocabulary… and part of that problem is a vocabulary that is under revision, dividing words we use to describe what we read and want to read into a Literary term for which we as readers in the genre have lost the agreed-upon definition.

So what does this mean for the genre fan, or the writer marketing their work? It means that we all need to be aware that terms are changing, being applied and misapplied. Here again we need a unified and authoritative voice, an executive decision made – but not made without due discourse. One of the best ways to finalize such a process is through Literary Criticism and the discussions it rightfully raises.

When tales of terror are not, we need to look at why they were called that to see if it is we who misunderstand the game…and if it is a matter of Critic versus Genre, maybe we all need to get on the same page…for the readers’ sake.

“Terror” is not what others make it. “Terror” may not be pirated for exclusive use. Because “terror” is one of those cousins of fear that made the Horror genre what it is, and it is ours by birthright. “Terror” is a genre term that should not be taken lightly when attaching catchy tag-lines onto book titles, or tucked between the flowery praise of a review or recommendation because “terror” occupies a unique place in our pantheon of primal responses to our world – real or imagined. And when we see it attached to story, it needs to mean something.

Terror—according to Hollywood Horror legend Boris Karloff – is “rooted in cosmic fear of the unknown. It is the more dreadful experience… but its very profundity makes it more difficult to achieve artistically….the psychology of terror, like true erotica, demands far more technique to comprehend and employ… [whereby] horror is a mere insistence on the gory and otherwise repugnant… “ (Masterpeices, xv).

Are we writing terror in the genre differently today? I think the answer is yes; for some reason we have decided that the blunt fun of the pulps is not worthy of Literary consideration, not worthy of further print. For some reason we think deciding this means an elevation to Literature, that real terror is in the subtext, and is something to be deciphered from cryptic and potentially boring prose. Maybe some of it is. But to call a thing a tale of terror, there should be some genre blood coursing through its veins; the average person should be able to see, feel, and appreciate it. This means there is much to discuss in our genre, ground rules that need to be established and adhered to — because Literature is most definitively not genre….but some genre is Literature.

Most of us don’t want to analyze that. We just want to know a tale of terror when we read one. We should know by the way it makes us feel…

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References

Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction Vol. 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.

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

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

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Madness of Art.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association p. 4-6. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007.

Mamatas, Nick. “Depth of Field.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, p. 113-117. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007

Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown: a Treasury of Bizare Tales Old and New Selected by Marvin Kaye. Marvin Kaye, ed. Garden City, New York. Guild America/Doubleday Book and Music Clubs, c1993.

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/

 

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.