Grandma Drove a Hearse (or, Why I Write Horror)


A lot of folks don’t “get” Horror writers. But they especially can’t understand what would make an otherwise respectable girl turn to Horror when they would much prefer to have raised a nice poet, or Nobel Prize winner.

Why? they ask, Was it something we did?

Well, maybe. Not to trot out the arm-chair psychologist or anything, but sometimes it has to do with simple curiosity – the kind that blooms in childhood in attic bedrooms cluttered with Victorian antiques smelling of mildew and wood rot…and sends thick, hungry vines to wrap around the trellis of imagination.

 

 

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Me…Post Ghost

 

A Brief History. With Ghost.

Take my Grandma. She actually did drive a hearse. And I was at times awed and terrified by her – curious about her. She was a delicate-looking woman who was excruciatingly formidable, a tough woman shaped by the hard and fearful era that endured the Great Depression and World War I. At some awkward age, having spied a photograph of her as a young woman, I dared to utter, “Grandma, you were pretty.” To which she flew verbally at me to say in all seriousness, “I still am.”

You see, in my Grandma’s times, children were to be seen and not heard. You were a Young Lady the moment you weren’t in diapers. You sat quietly on the sofa, hands in your lap, legs demurely crossed, and mouth shut. Period.

You did not wander into rooms not for public viewing. You did not wander into rooms not intended for children. And you certainly did not pry into business not specifically your own, or speak before properly spoken to. Meanwhile your eyes took in the ball-and-claw furniture, the hand-woven rugs, what I now know to be folk art portraits of hideously miscalculated anatomy in solemn poses, dimly lit floor lamps married by tangles of extension cords, actual drapes framing the windows…

You heard the conversations about relatives and wars and matters of family. You could feel the fabric of mystery, of things left unsaid or understated. But you didn’t dare ask.

In other words, it was boring. And eerie. And cold.

And as an inevitably flawed child, it was treacherous navigating those social waters you were flung into every major holiday. But I was also simultaneously fascinated that my grandparents had had lives.

I used to sneak into the room where my Vietnam-era father (a career army officer), sat and talked to my Grandpa about his service in World War I, and his passion — the history of the Civil War. It was there I fell in love with history, because I could see its relevance to real people. But it was also where that matter of the hearse came up – because my Grandma had taken over for the men who would have done the job had they not gone off to war. No Rosie-the-Riveter, my Grandma… she drove the hearse.

Neither did it dawn on anyone that living for any length of time in Grandma’s haunted house might have had some influence on my ultimate choice of career. Never mind that I saw my first ghost there – that of my Great Grandmother who purchased the house and whose photograph I recognized years later when my own mother passed away – cuz yep that was her alright, sitting in the rocking chair at the foot of my bed, dressed in Victorian black and glaring at all four years old of me clutching my little toy dog. (My mother had later admitted that the house was haunted by Miss Mary, and that was “her” bedroom and “she” didn’t like kids. Thanks, Mom. Thanks for sending me back up there. Alone.)

So I guess it came as a surprise to me that anyone would be disappointed in my decision to be a writer or in my genre choice, sitting in a houseful of antiques where coffin boxes routinely did double-duty as linen storage.

But the decision to pursue the arts was not welcome in our family; it was a nice hobby. But it was a frequently expressed and common opinion that I needed to do something else with my education. I can’t tell you how many private talks were had that left me perpetually baffled, deflated, and professionally adrift. In fact, I attribute those conversations from my early years to the hideously long delay in starting a writing career.

Scary old folks who drive hearses and have intimidating opinions can have that effect on a young writer.

And it was only the bestsellerdom of a certain Stephen King in the 1970’s that began to change my parents’ opinions…I think they were more dazzled by his successes and the promise of Big Money than I ever was… But by then the damage to my ego had been done. By then I had subverted my love for writing and could only rebel by not becoming a chiropractor  (believe it or not, my grandparent’s dream for me.)

So I dropped out of college in my twenties. I couldn’t find a “calling” that did not include the Arts and a bad paycheck. Or the humanities and a bad paycheck. Or a bad paycheck.

I misspent years of my youth in the shadow of the oft versed collective condemnation of my elders by not writing…and I was miserable.

Then indeed came the Era of Stephen King. And suddenly not only was writing cool – writing Horror was cool. It was as though the whole condemnation thing had been an hallucination…and I was misremembering my entire youth, every verbal barb. Instead, it was all about, “when are you going to write a book?”

So, okay, you realize (I was thinking loudly), it’s not like I can just flip a switch here…. Or wave a wand at New York. I had buried a lot of stories…buried them deep… And never mind that once the Muse is insulted enough, she goes AWOL.  Even if I could find a thread of a tale, there was another problem my years of denial had created:  when I did sit down to write, I found I felt…uneducated. Like I didn’t know how to go about it.

It was an epiphany moment when I realized that for all of the compliments English teachers gave me in high school, they didn’t really give me direction. Partly this was because teachers are so constantly overburdened with a wide range of students and abilities, and partly this was because University-level education in English at that time led to the otherwise unfocused study of Classic Literature, or teaching. But not writing. Not invention. Not story construction. Not craft.

Apparently, we haven’t advanced much – relying now upon a few undergraduate courses, expensive workshops, horribly expensive MFA’s, or collective groups of writers who are no better educated than yourself about what ails your fiction.

But we are also no better in helping writers find out who they are as writers, and about educating them within their chosen genre. I realized that this is because we do not educationally link all of the things that make writing dynamic. Instead we loudly identify and point out the fawn lying in the tall grass… and sometimes those of us lying down only see the big teeth after that moment.

No one takes vulnerable youth and guides it….they seem to think we are homing pigeons born with our own magnetic compasses destined to take us infallibly to our careers… And that if we fail to navigate successfully, it is a sign we deserved to fail. We are not worthy.

Try battling that ghost…

Writing is Curiosity

One of the truly coolest things about writing is the full scope of the brain that gets involved in the process.

None of this was lost on me sitting in that bed at Grandma’s that night, certain a ghost was in the room with me. And it is exactly that kind of thing that gets the old curiosity going.

Never mind that many writers who write Horror typically don’t “believe” in the supernatural; many of them are agnostic, or have fallen away from their respective childhood faith. Some of us do get into it because of the things we’ve experienced, but don’t understand. Some of us were obliquely analytical about those hairs standing straight up, and managed to get a bit addicted to the frisson of terror that dilates the pupils and spills questions from your mouth like, “did that door just move by itself?”

We might sit in graveyards, or watch Horror movies with the lights out. Just because. And then we might dive into philosophy and religion and psychology because we sense it is all interrelated. And we find it’s fun…scaring ourselves.

But it also means we know how hard it is to recreate. Because who knows what witches’ brew of written ingredients will cast the right spell? We have to pull the fear out of our minds and inject it into those of perfect strangers – about whom we only know that they have the same addiction to scaring themselves. How to surprise them…

Horror is so brain science! Psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, neurolinguistics, linguistics, memory, information processing, emotions, responses – learned and innate, physiology, biology, language formation and use…

When you see a ghost, why don’t you run? When you see something you know is not there, why does your heart race? What does it mean if you see a ghost? Is there something physically wrong? Mentally wrong? Or worse, spiritually wrong? What does that say about humanity? About the soul? About death? About religion? About God?

Horror is all about the Big Questions. From Great Grandma sitting at the end of the bed all dead, to what is the real meaning of life… Horror is the one genre willing to get down and dirty with the harsh imaginings of what it means to be human.

And as such it can spread its prose to encompass the symbolic, to haunt the guilty, to cry for justice.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also made for some of the greatest Horror ever written. And it’s why as human beings we love scary stories, the macabre, the eerie.

Life Sucks. Death Sucks Worse.

So as you get older and people around you start dying, you also start wondering just why you are –especially after all these years— a writer of Horror. You wonder if you shouldn’t have channeled yourself into some other people-pleasing genre, written about hunks from history or epic battles. But then you get all excited about the new Joyce Carol Oates book, or rediscover some Shirley Jackson novel, or embrace some Roald Dahl or go all Saki with “Sredni Vashtar” and you just realize…you like it too much.

You realize that at the end of the day, you need to aim for the least amount of regrets. And if that means you spend your time sitting in a room writing scary tales – or trying to write them, then so be it.

Life sucks. Sometimes you’re the hearse-driver, sometimes you’re the hearse passenger. Life may be hard and unforgiving, the paychecks may be smaller in the arts, but death without having tried sucks worse.

It’s why if you are a young person whose parents frown at what you have chosen to write, you need to just keep writing it. Don’t ever stop writing. You can’t get those years back. And not-writing will make you miserable. It’s why if you are an older writer still waiting to for the right time to write, you need to pose those ghosts in your head and paint prose pictures right now. Just clear a space in a quiet corner and start writing. You probably have years of failure to spend catching up on lost time and opportunity… and like me, you aren’t getting any younger. Go for it. Set your soul free.

So I guess I’ll stay right here, totally remembering the image of Great Grandma in that rocking chair, totally awed by my hearse-driving Grandma. I have a lot of catching up to do, a lot of stories to unbury. And with beginnings like that, surely there’s one good tale in me worth telling.

Now to find the kitchen shears to root it out…

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Woe is I

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

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

Get them and read them. Get them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is up with that?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Awakening the Real Writer Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says Brooks:

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

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

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

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Getting Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how it’s done.

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So let the digging and defining begin…

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Defining Weird Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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H.P. Lovecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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S.T. Joshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China Mieville

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

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

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

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

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

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The VanderMeers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t that be weird?

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Tales3

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.

Tales4

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…

 Tales5

 

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.

Cover Story: Judging the Book Business of Horror


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

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

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

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

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

Still a Snipe Hunt

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

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

King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

springtime  broken

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

Why is this?

Tentacles Anonymous. One Day at a Time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be still my heart….

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

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

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

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

art of

Horror Writers Unite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror Publishers Wake Up!

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

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

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

God, I miss the ‘80s.

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

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

Artwork to die for.

Artwork to put in a picture frame.

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

girl  Asylum

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

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

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

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

 

GOOD HORROR I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY FOUND

(Nonfiction)

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

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

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

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

(Anthologies)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Novels & Single Author Anthologies)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Real Ghosts Scare People

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

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

So what are we missing?

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

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

Ye gods!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What better way to proclaim our own innocence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try hiding from that under your bedsheets…

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

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

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

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

Chaos is Not Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that would be terrifying.

 

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Weird Tales Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Central Casting

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

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

Stop the insanity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

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

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

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

Recommended Websites:

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

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