“Horror is many things to many people.” – Scott Nicholson
It’s no secret, I love the Horror genre and its many sub-genres. I’ve naturally gravitated towards writing horror even though I really only started reading it in earnest in my mid-twenties. I’ve enjoyed immensely the insane roller coaster ride I’ve taken through novels by the like of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, Brian Keene and others; and shorter works by the likes of Angela Slatter, HP Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, to name just a few.
For me there’s something particularly gratifying about horror fiction because – whether we know it or not – it speaks to us on multiple levels. Like any fiction it is a form of entertainment, however unlike all fiction it is particularly good at certain things:
1. In a way that no other genre does, with the probable exception of Romance, it speaks to us on a primal level, exciting physiological responses (racing pulses, dread, sweaty palms, actual terror; fear and confusion) within us.
2. It relates to us by use of cautionary tales, ones that we can understand through our own human experience: don’t go into the tall grass, don’t walk in the woods alone at night, don’t pull over and pick up the hitch-hiker, — If you do this, bad shit can/will happen.
3. Often, it delivers poignant social criticisms or criticisms of human traits or qualities. Behind the cannibalism and the severed-penis necklaces, stories like Jack Ketchum’s Offspring or Richard Laymon’s “The Woods Are Dark” examine how different people and societies respond to violent and horrific situations and the decent into barbarism. The zombie sub-genre and novels like Stephen King’s ”The Stand” offer social criticisms or commentary around issues such as consumerism, reliance on technology, greed and selfishness vs. altruism and selflessness, the ethics of medical experimentation/weapons research etc.
As the years have gone by, a lot of the common horror plot devices or creatures etc have evolved into well-worn tropes. Obvious examples of these are ghosts, zombies, vampires and serial killers, cannibals, etc. The thing that really annoys me is that editors, publishers and markets these days have really fallen into the trap of viewing and defining horror fiction or the horror genre as being these tropes. So much so that if you don’t include one of these tropes or a subtle spin on one of these tropes within your fiction, it isn’t actually considered to be horror.
From the Horror Writer’s Association website:
So why, you might ask, is horror so generally frowned upon by the literary establishment?
The answer to that question lies in the nature of the publishing industry. Back in the seventies, an unknown writer burst onto the scene with a novel called Carrie. The work went on to be made into a wildly successful film, and a new genre was born. The author I’m referring to is, of course, Stephen King. King set the stage for what horror was to become in the eighties and early nineties.
Almost overnight, King’s brand of fiction became a multi-million dollar industry. Publishers saw the dollar signs looming before them and charged full speed ahead, making horror into a product. They gave it a specific identity, a specific formula. Writers then popped out of the woodwork, eager to embrace and attempt to duplicate the stunning success of Mr. King.
It was at this point that horror literature lost its identity.
I disagree with this proscriptive attitude that Horror fiction is or should be defined by certain formula, mythology or repetitive plot devices. I honestly feel that you could write a story in a contemporary setting with no serial killers, or supernatural or paranormal elements and it could still be horrific. It could still create those tell-tale horrific physiological reactions in the reader, all the while telling a cautionary tale or providing a social criticism or commentary.
I recently wrote a story that about a teenage boy who, in attempting to overcome bullying and self-doubt in the wake of a horrific bicycle crash, braves the same hill on a bicycle that put him in hospital. The story is well written and gets the reader’s blood pumping. It acts as cautionary tale and a social criticism of sorts. It features graphic descriptions of traumatic and bloody bicycle crash. It has been critiqued by a multi-award winning professional horror writer who encouraged me to submit it widely for publication.
The upshot is, I can’t actually sell the thing though because it just isn’t what horror markets are looking for. It doesn’t have any ghosts/vampires/demons/zombies/hillbilly rapists/vagina dentata/serial killers/supernatural or paranormal elements. As a result, I’ve submitted it to literary fiction magazines and currently have it “In Progress” with several. The additional irony and kick-in-the-teeth being that none of the professional horror magazines accept simultaneous submissions so I have to wait 30-60 days for each of them to reject it, yet all the literary mags allow simultaneous submissions so I now have the story out to about 12 or so literary mags.
The horror identity crisis does not stop here, however.
The great irony is that while we have the editors of our current horror publications and presses viewing horror fiction through the prison of well-established tropes, we have another myopic form of censorship occurring more widely through the literary world, in respect to horror writing.
The following is tale comes from the horror author Scott Nicholson, and his description of the day he realised he was the Last American Horror Writer.
“Showing up early for a recent signing, I had time to browse the store a little bit, checking out the competition, wading past the pirate and Da Vinci material to reach the fiction section. I looked for the titles of my friends, who are also horror writers. Miraculously, practically overnight, the spines of their books had been changed to read simply “Fiction.”
I was all alone, and that was scarier than any ghost or monster I had ever penned. I’m not vain enough to believe I had suddenly become the standard bearer for a fading genre. No, what had changed was the publishing industry perception of the label. The publishers’ sales teams believe horror doesn’t sell, so they convey this lack of enthusiasm to the bookstores. The bookstore owners don’t order it, and because readers don’t see it on the shelves, they believe horror must no longer be readable.”
So the horror writer exists in a state of literary limbo. Our work is defined by editors as horror or not based upon a myopic prism of tropes and pre-requisites; and yet (in its longer forms) is defined or referred to by publishers and bookstores as ‘fiction’ because horror does not, apparently, sell – or is so low a form of literature as to not even warrant its own bookshelf.
So what is the solution to the great Horror Identity Crisis?
I’m not really a solutions kinda guy. I never have been. I roll with the punches and I’m not exactly prolific enough or of a stature that anyone of any note will listen anyway – but I do think that certain things should happen:
- Horror writers should have their work labelled as such (at least assuming they wish it to be so). Publishers need to get over the fear of Horror and understand its great value as literature and what it can offer as unique vehicles for story-telling, conveying emotion or social criticism etc. They also need to realise that it really has great potential for sales (historically proven) and great opportunities for movie adaptations (also historically proven) and additional revenue streams if appropriately marketed etc. The belief that “Horror is dead” is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Editors, publishers, writers and readers need to realise that Horror, really is, many things to many people; and, at the heart of it, (even though I’m using the capital ‘H’ here) it really is an emotion and not just a genre. Horror (and horror) is not defined by supernatural or paranormal elements – even though they can be plot devices that generate it.
- People generally, need to approach literature with an open mind because they never really know the true value of a story until they’ve read it, nor do they know its sales potential or its historic lasting power until they’ve published it – and even then, initial sales are a poor indicator. If you look at Tolkien or HP Lovecraft, they’re both much bigger now than ever they were during their own lifetimes.
I’ll leave you with the words of the Douglas E. Winter; anthologist and biographer of Clive Barker and Stephen King.
“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in the ghetto of libraries or a bookstore … horror is an emotion.” — Douglas E. Winter in the introduction to Prime Evil (New York: New American Library, 1988)
Would love to hear your thoughts on Horror (and horror) and the great Horror Identity Crisis! Please share this post, if possible, so it can get wide distribution. Would love to get a conversation started.