Monday, June 6, 2011

It's Time for a Horror Comeback

Over on the Kindle Boards, several of us horror writers and readers were having us up a good jaw-flappin over the old cracker barrel as to why no new horror writer of the stature of Stephen King has arisen. Stephen King is the only horror writer most people have read, for cripes sake! I pointed out that it's especially strange because horror movies have had several resurgences since the slashers of the 80s. So what's the dilly?

I think that maybe horror long fiction has gotten too conservative. If you look at the greats, those who totally changed the game, it basically goes Poe to Lovecraft to King. These men were visionaries. But I don't think we'd need a writer quite that big to jumpstart an interest in horror. If we could have a few new Clive Barkers and Ramsey Campbells, some people willing to do something different and daring, we could enter a new era.

In fact, the conversation made me think of Ramsey Campbell's introduction to Clive Barker's Books of Blood. He said, "If, on the other hand, you're tired of tales that tuck you up and make sure the night light is on before leaving you, not to mention the parade of Good Stories Well Told which have nothing more to offer than borrowings from better horror writers whom the best-seller audience have never heard of, you may rejoice as I did to discover that Clive Barker is the most original writer of horror fiction to have appeared for years."

The weird thing is that a lot of short horror fiction is nuts! Forget horror, Chiaroscuro publishes some of the best, most inventive fiction of any genre. But there's not a lot of carry over into novels. I'm just gonna toss some blame around and see what sticks:

1. I blame Stephen King. Ever since he described himself as a "meat and potatoes" writer who just wants to tell good stories, horror writers have thought it okay to take the same stance and try not to seem too hoity toity. Well guess what, suckers? Stephen King might think he's just a simple man telling simple stories, but he's fucking NOT. His imagination is huge. He writes characters as believable as anyone. Haven't you ever wondered why he sometimes can't avoid the deus ex machina endings? It's because he lets his characters run wild, but then has to provide a nice, neat genre-reader friendly ending. The dude is an experimental writer, even if he doesn't know it. But his friendly opinions about the art of storytelling have influenced A LOT of writers, and for the worse. They aim to be the tellers of "Good Stories Well Told" whose existence Campbell laments. Who thinks that Poe didn't know he was doing something totally new? Who thinks that Lovecraft didn't push himself to explore the furthest reaches of his dark vision, even if it alienated the average person? They weren't experimental? Yeah right.

2. I blame the nature of horror itself. I think it was Nick Mamatas who said a few years ago that it's basically impossible to write a pure horror novel. Horror alone can only sustain short fiction. For long fiction, horror elements are basically added to something, usually a thriller. While horror lends itself to experimentation, thrillers really don't. They've got a pretty tight set of expectations to be met. It's hard to think of a work of pure horror long fiction. Maybe House of Leaves? But it had its structure to prop and bulk it up.

3. There are horror novels being published that could be trend-setting, but they're not accessible enough to attain a critical mass of sales. Is the audience too conservative? Maybe. Stephen King happens to be really amazing and really accessible, but those two things don't always go together. Lovecraft definitely didn't write the most accessible stuff. He was a writers' writer, and it took awhile for everyone else to understand his true greatness and influence. So maybe there are writers like him going completely unnoticed, doomed to be buried under huge mounds of Good Stories Well Told. Maybe? Definitely. I know indie horror writers who are trying new things, and they're not necessarily the ones being rewarded by sales. If you know of any that totally changed how you view horror (indie or otherwise), let me know. I would love to be blown away by another horror novel.

I want what I read to change me. If I'm just looking for hollow entertainment--you know, just killing time until death's sweet embrace--honestly, I'd prefer to watch a movie or play a video game. I still read because fiction provides a depth of experience that is unmatched by any other medium. I want to read things that are new. That are different. If I wanted to read something safe and predictable and that plays by the rules and won't surprise me, I'll reread a book I already know I enjoy. Dune, probably. That book still rocked the sixth time I read it.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that I've enjoyed a couple of literary writers' tries at the horror genre. Like everyone else I loved The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I also really enjoyed Lunar Park by Brett Easton Ellis, despite the extremely unsatisfying ending. I don't know if it's because they're experimenting or if they just aren't familiar with the conventions, but I found these books fresh.

I'm still pushing myself as a writer. I try to always be doing something different, but I definitely don't claim to have written anything revolutionary--


OHDANGIJUSTTHREWDOWNTHEGAUNTLETWHAAAAAAAT?!?!?! (Yes, I know that this is why people dislike me.)

I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago. I sat down and went through a bunch of related ideas I was having and for like 7 hours wrote blog posts, enough to post MWF for almost a month. This past Thursday Shea MacLeod posted a nice review of When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha at her blog.

"It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. And then it does."

That's one of the best things a person has said about one of my works. Thanks, Shea.


  1. Great post; you've articulated a lot the vague thoughts that float around my head all day. Some (not all original) comments:

    I think two of your ideas are related:

    King changed the game + horror often works best in short story from.

    I think one way King changed things was by making horror *novels* the default for horror writing, as opposed to short stories which it had been before. There are some exceptions, but most of the earlier horror fiction of any quality (Poe, Lovecraft, Leiber, Matheson etc.) seemed to manly be in the short form, often published in the pulps. Obviously there were good horror novels before then, but I can't see that there was the same glut of big fat horror novels as there was post-King. (The Exorcist helped this trend too). Afterwards we had the people like Peter Straub and Dan Simmons come along, as well as less great people like, god help us, Shaun Hutson.

    Second: for all Kings protestations, he's got a literate, experimental streak to him. Check out the range of his reading in Dance Macabre, or the ending of The Dark Tower cycle... (which I loved; I know many of the meat & potatoes crowd hated it).

    I think the theory that horror works best at short lengths is broadly correct, and so I suspect the decline in horror popularity may be related to the decline in popularity of short fiction in general. But I still think its true - I can't think of a single horror writer who was important to horror who didn't at least dabble in short stories, except maybe Mary Shelley? Whenever I come across a new horror writer I always check out their short stories first (hence Pulling Teeth being the initial thing I bought of yours).

    Anyway, I could write about this stuff all night, but I suspect it's impolite to write a comment longer than the original article..! Again, great post Alan.

  2. I haven't read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I should, because I can barely imagine a novel by Lovecraft.

    Good post-length comment ;) But for reals, if you've got more to say, I think you should write it up. I've got some more stuck in my craw, and I think this is a discussion horror writers should be having if we ever want to regain an audience.

  3. I think the point about horror being more appropriate to shorter works is the important one. It's so difficult to maintain the intensity that horror requires in longer works I think.

    Even King's best horror are all shorts or at best novellas. Most of his novel-length works are more literary than horror in my opinion. He does have admirable range though, as James mentioned, and I think that's why the mainstream public loves him.

    I love to read horror, but I haven't written much of it yet. My ideas are usually more fantasy than horror, though I think one of my WIP straddles the line between the two genres a bit.

  4. I really enjoyed this post, Alan.
    I'm not sure that I have anything really scholarly to add to the discussion. I've read horror for most of my reading life, but not exclusively.
    I absolutely adore King and I went through a fairly obsessive Barker phase in my late teens. I dabbled a bit with other horror writers, and found a few that I liked quite a bit (Poppy Z. Brite), but I've never found any other horror writers that could really do it for me like King can.

    So I agree with both of you that King's different, and I like that. But does that make him less of a horror writer? Or me less of a horror reader?

    I don't know.

  5. Coral – I should probably revisit King’s short work. I haven’t read any of it in about a decade. At the time I thought it was too concept rather than character oriented. But like you, I also like his more focused work, his novellas and his shorter novels. But then again, some of his long novels show his risk-taking. For example, while the huge, epic post-apocalyptic novel has become a safe standard, I think King really blazed trails with The Stand. They do move away from horror, though.

    Your comment of literary vs horror is interesting. Like I said, I think most horror authors add horror onto a thriller, but while King has done this, I think he does often go for a more literary piggyback (Trojan horse?). I’m just feeling this out as of your comment, but now I’m thinking about the fact that I’ve liked a couple of literary novelists forays into horror, and I like King, and I’m thinking that maybe literary isn’t a bad larger structure to add our horror influences onto. I’m going to think more about that. I think that you’re right, King is often literary. That’s why his characters get him into trouble, because I think the only real distinction of the literary genre is that characters are emphasized over outside plot. I think the level of character realism matters when categorizing literary fiction, but the realism of the world described is simply another choice an author makes. It seems to me that both the genre and the literary communities are beginning to realize that a mimetic world can be very un-literary, and a very literary work can take place in a fantastic world (Never Let Me Go). King would probably argue that he’s not literary though, and I know that in the past at least he’s felt persecuted by the literary community (as opposed to genre/mainstream).

    Shana – I jumped from middle grade to adult fiction when I was 10, starting with King. When I say that I blame him, I don’t think he’s not horror. I was being hyperbolic and don’t think it’s really even his fault. I think the problem is the writers trying to emulate him (or at least what he says), but only getting the gestures, not the soul, and I think they come off too conservative in their approach. He’s an original, and that’s a good thing. And if I could give someone just a bit of the terror I felt reading It when I was 10, then I’d consider myself a successful horror writer. I really liked Brite, too, though I don’t think I’ve read anything by him since the late 90s. I understand he’s retired now.

  6. BTW, this is an awesome discussion!

  7. Alan, you make a good point about King's imitators getting the gesture but not his soul. It's like it's just window dressing.

  8. Hmm, you're right about The Stand, he really did bring apocalyptic stories to everyone's attention with that one. Still one of my all-time favorites of his, though it did suffer from that deus ex problem in a big way.

    I'm sure you're right, King would say that he isn't literary, but I think he'd be wrong! ;)

    On a slightly-related topic, my husband and I were discussing a few weeks ago that Michael Jackson is responsible for the popularity of zombie stories with Thriller. There were zombie stories before then of course, but nobody really saw/read them.

  9. Coral, you wink, but I think he would be wrong, too! A writer doesn't always get to say where he lands in history.

    Look at the rage the protagonist has in Salem's Lot towards critics. I can't blame his residual hostility. He started out at a time when a writer of fantastic work had no chance with the literary crowd, and so he decided he was just a "meat and potatoes" writer even though he's really not.

    That's an interesting point about zombies and MJ. It might be a bit like how Scream revived horror movies by bringing them out of the nerd basements and back into the eye of the general public.

    Guys, this is getting a ton of ideas swirling in my head for more posts. If you write any on your own blogs related to this topic, I'll try to link to them. I do sometimes get a few days behind on my google reader.

  10. I think the comment about people copying the surface of King and not the depths is spot on. I think you see it often when talking about a real original. Same thing was mentioned about Carver on a short story blog I was on; same thing happens in music - all the sad Nirvana imitators...

    Interesting about horror elements in the mainstream; sic fi too. But I hate it that they can't just come out and say "I've written a horror lit hybrid" as if it's beneath them or something...

  11. You're very right about the innovators and the imitators.

    oh man, a lot of the time horror writers will barely admit to writing horror! Brett Easton Ellis will admit to just about anything, though.

    As the old breed goes gentle into that good night, it's getting kind of hip to have genre influences and I think more literary writers are acknowledging them, and even more will in the future. That's for another post.