Monday 9 January 2012

But I Digress | Horror Lives Again! But When Was It Dead?

It's been a while since I went off on one in a public forum, and I don't know that that's quite what I aim to do here today, but a couple of comments about a certain genre of fiction - one particularly near and dear to my heart - have rubbed me the wrong way in recent weeks, and I thought the sensible thing to do before I disappear off to Bratislava the day after tomorrow was to have a good old fashioned moan.

The first insult came by way of The Guardian's Alison Flood, whose articles I usually admire. It begins:

"Helen Dunmore, Jeanette Winterson and Melvin Burgess: not the first people you'd imagine signing up to write for publishing imprint Hammer Horror, home to bloodcurdling shrieks and helpless virgins. But sign up they have, and Dunmore, whose ghost story The Greatcoat is out in February, couldn't be prouder. Horror, it seems, is going literary."

I can't very well excerpt the entire article, but take twenty seconds and read it yourself. It's mercifully short... a puff piece, really, about this new fiction imprint. As to that, what gives, The Guardian?

In any event, that's not what really rankled. And that single quote, though it starts us down the right track, doesn't completely communicate the laziness of Flood's commentary. The overpowering stink of snobbery about it. Because if horror is going literary - whatever that might mean - it couldn't very well have been literary before, now could it?

What absolute poppycock.

Meanwhile, the folks at SFX interviewed Jo Fletcher out of Jo Fletcher Books, the new genre fiction imprint which just put out A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood, which is to say a horror novel, and a good 'un, too. Now Jo's comments are a lot less injurious than Flood's - essentially all she's saying is that "horror is making a bit of a comeback," and perhaps it is - but her words got me wondering: what exactly is horror coming back from? What low had it sunk to, and in whose eyes, that it's in need of such renewal?

Perhaps I'm simply too close to this thing to see it clearly, but I've been paying close attention to horror fiction in recent years - specifically since I launched The Speculative Scotsman - and it hadn't occurred to me that we were in the midst of some sinister slump, in either critical or commercial terms. Clearly it hadn't occurred to any of Joe Hill, Alden Bell, Adam Neville, Justin Cronin, Tom Fletcher, Robert Jackson Bennett or Gary McMahon either, and at the moment I'm blanking on I don't know how many novel new voices that have helped make the case for horror's continuing popularity and relevancy.

Pray tell me, then: when exactly was this watershed? When was horror in such dire straits that it needed Jo Fletcher to declare a renaissance, or Hammer goddamn Horror to endeavour to make the genre more literary, of all things? It doesn't take an acute observer to intuit the the underlying subtext of all this opinion... that there is, or there was, some fundamental problem with horror.

For my part, predictably, I think the genre has being getting along just fine, please and thank you. But I couldn't possibly pretend to be objective about this, so I turn to you fine folks.

Am I very much mistaken? Am I barking up the wrong tree entirely here?

Or is there something rotten going on in the industry, or the establishment, in terms of this professed negative perception?


  1. I believe it's not that the horror genre's dead NOW, or that it was a few weeks ago, but rather that it was a bit back, when the huge boon brought on by King/Koontz's insane popularity led to a wave of good and not so good horror that then crashed, leaving the Horror section of the bookstore pretty much just populated by those two authors, with most horror either being a small press affair or shelved somewhere else (say, the label Dark Fantasy, or what have you).

  2. The huge effloresce of King & Koontz et al may be what the article is riffing on about. These two authors alone produced what amounts to some really dubious books, whose commercial success pumped life blood into popular horror during the late 70s and right up to our current decade.

    But to say that's the whole story of the genre suggests that the writer and their expected audience, simply aren't very horror-literate.

    Literary horror has been plentiful since the genre was developed. Rymer's penny dreadful 'Varny The Vampire' was followed not long after by Stoker's Dracula. Shelley's 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus' predate both by twenty years or more.

    Horror has been the subject and/or backdrop for many a serious, literary minded author. And there are those like Thomas Ligotti and Caitlin R. Kiernan who have unquestionably kept the literate end of the genre alive and thrashing.

    A good amount of experimental fiction has come out of horror as well. You could easily place Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich, and much of Michael Cisco's output under its moth-eaten umbrella.

    A lot of the buzz about 'The Reapers Are The Angels' by Alden Bell, which I thought personally had more ambition than success, centred on it being a "literary zombie novel." So these things come up from time to time, mostly I suspect because the reviewers or writers of the article aren't that well versed in wider horror. They know the big popular names, and that's all.

    I wouldn't take it too much to heart. If they want to tart up Hammer Horror, that's fine. And there is nothing wrong with helping people to think about horror as more the shlock and gore of late night creature features.

    So I'd give them a easier time. They are just either unfamiliar, or amnesiacs wandering around in a (yellow) fog.

  3. As an addendum, I'd also direct the reviewer to Hawthorn and Bierce, Poe and Chambers. Among Dickens' most famous tales after all, is a ghost story.

    So this isn't a new trend. At best, one might argue for a revival, a modern renaissance of literary horror. Visibility perhaps has been helped by the current popularity of the genre present across film, tv, comics, and novels.

    But even here, you're struggling against the tide, as the 90s are replete with some excellent horror.