Last month I began a conversation about the horror genre with one of the preeminent literary critics in the field, Jack M. Haringa, co-editor with S.T. Joshi of the International Horror Guild Award-nominated review journal Dead Reckonings. We covered topics such as defining this hard-to-classify genre, exploring its similarities with and differences from science fiction and fantasy, and name-checking some horror authors that IROSF readers might enjoy. Unfortunately, I ran out of room just as Haringa left us with this tantalizing tidbit:
[T]here's so much good new work being produced, it almost makes me forget about the genre's failings.
I would be the world's worst journalist if I didn't follow up on a juicy statement like that. All enthusiasts love their chosen field with a passion, and as a result all enthusiasts have no small number of opinions about what is holding that field back. So I asked Haringa if there was one thing he disliked about the horror genre, what it would be.
Do I have to choose just one? I suppose the most frustrating for me—
and an aspect of the genre of which many readers might be unaware— is the virulent strand of anti-intellectualism that pervades the writing community and the core readership of the genre. Obviously, I don't mean that to characterize everyone who writes or reads horror. But if one spends enough time visiting message boards frequented by some small press writers and publishers, one begins to see that some of them have an almost pathological aversion to taking writing and reading seriously, that is to thinking about the content and expression of fiction beyond its surface.
I recently wrote an essay called "The Agnatology of Horror; or, Lies the Internet Told You" for a book entitled Writers Workshop of Horror, and in it I address some of the anti-intellectual attitudes I've encountered online. What it boils down to is that a book is—
must be, really— about more than its plot if it is to be remembered. A writer needs to have something to say. And a reader, for his or her part, should not be put off by the occasional four-syllable word or extended metaphor— in fact, all of these marvelous tropes of horror are, ultimately, metaphors. And the reader ought to be curious about what the book has to say about the human condition. The last thing I want is a book that asks me to check my brain at the door. I don't want to read novels written for the lowest common denominator.
I have to admit, Haringa's answer didn't come as a surprise to me. Maybe that's because, like him, I have such a deep and abiding love for the horror genre that I don't like to see it held hostage to prejudices against writing styles that go beyond the bare-bones, meat-and-potatoes style that I feel makes far too many novels or stories forgettable. Nor do I want to see it dumbed down by the idea that literature must serve no purpose other than to entertain, that the novels or stories that inspire people to think or feel or enact change are somehow pretentious, unworthy of readership or success, or that most ironically damning of all condemnations one can apply to a creative work—
Still, Haringa's answer made me wonder if horror was alone in suffering from anti-intellectual attitudes amongst its most vocal fan and author bases, or if it's something that horror's sister genres, science fiction and fantasy, also suffer from. Haringa thinks it might be unique.
I don't see this kind of anti-intellectualism in science fiction; I don't see it in fantasy. That's not to say it, or some variation of it, doesn't exist, of course. But those genres seem to attract a core group of fans who are willing to look beyond the surface, to see what the author is saying about who we are and where we're going. Horror as a genre says astonishing things all the time. It addresses difficult issues and transgresses social norms to dig at them. But if a vocal part of its core readership complains that not enough "happens"—
that there's more characterization and atmosphere than sheer incident— then they seem to me to be working to undermine the power and potential of the genre as a whole. And that sort of noise can discourage risk-taking by writers and publishers alike.
It's an interesting point, and an alarming one to me as an author. In some ways, horror is akin to H.P. Lovecraft's infamous Thing on the Doorstep. It sometimes wears a misleading skin, and sadly, the misperceptions and expectations that plague the genre don't always come from the outside; they can come from within too. The idea that horror—
Or is it already too late? To find out, I asked Haringa if in the course of his two-plus years as co-editor of Dead Reckonings he has noticed any prevalent trends in contemporary horror literature, for good or for ill. At the same time, I asked, has he noticed any marked differences in tone or theme between horror published in 2007, when he and Joshi started the journal, and horror published now.
I suppose this depends on whether you look at major New York publishers or small (or micro) presses. One trend that spans both is the gross (in several meanings of the word) proliferation of zombie novels. While the vampire has remained a perennial favorite trope in the genre, the zombie has absolutely captured the public's and the publishers' hearts in the last few years. Personally, I find the zombie rather tiresome at this point; most of the books coming out now are just retelling the same stories over and over. Part of this has to do with the inherent plot limitations of the Romero-inspired zombie scenarios: ultimately, the world is going to end, thereís no cure for the disease, and the reader is merely subjected to shooting sprees, viscera banquets, and chase scenes.
The paranormal mystery and romance subgenres have also exploded in popularity. I haven't read much in these fields, though I understand that some good work is being done incorporating the tropes of horror into urban fantasy settings and plots. I suppose Laurell K. Hamilton and Joss Whedon are about equally to credit for so many of these stories.
The last year in particular has brought even more turbulence than usual to the small presses specializing in horror. A number have disappeared, slowed publication schedules, or halted without notice. As in so many other industries, there's been a contracting of scope, but very good material (and, to be honest, very bad material) continues to be published. Major publishers continue to acquire horror and continue their trend of marketing it as anything but. I donít know if there's a New York publisher today that still puts the word "horror" on the spine of its paperbacks. Yet there's no shortage of novels involving the supernatural and psychological tropes of horror. This has been a trend since the "boom" ended in the early 1990s for horror, and it has likely been exacerbated by the general public's association of the word "horror" with slasher and torture-porn movies that have garnered far more attention than they deserve.
It occurs to me that horror is a Thing on the Doorstep in another way too. It seems to be lurking on the threshold (to switch metaphors from Lovecraft to August Derleth), neither in nor out, but somewhere in between, as if it's in the process of making up its mind about in which direction to step. Will horror be what we always knew it could be, an expansive and diverse literary genre as worthy of esteem and popularity as any other, or will it strictly serve a small, vocal audience who wants it to be only one thing, and presented in only one way? Horror has the capacity for all kinds of stories and all manner of storytelling, from the spare prose craftsperson to the highest of stylists—
I'd like to thank Jack M. Haringa for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully. If you haven't read an issue of Dead Reckonings yet, I can't recommend it strongly enough. It's the perfect snapshot of what's being published in horror today.
I hope you all had a wonderful Halloween, whether you spent it watching scary movies, reading horror stories, trick or treating (more things on the doorstep!), or going to parties. Me, I went to a Halloween bash at the home of one of my favorite authors, Sarah Langan (Audrey's Door), and her husband, filmmaker J.T. Petty (The Burrowers). They both love horror, and their Halloween parties are legendary. My girlfriend and I dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
I tell ya, that little hood barely fit me.