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Publisher: Bluejack

November, 2009 : Feature:

The Genre on the Doorstep

Dead Air 2

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—"artsy." Such attitudes run the risk of stymieing innovation, silencing new and exciting voices, and keeping the genre in a rut that appeals only to the smallest readership, to the exclusion of most of the reading public. My lack of surprise might also stem from having seen for myself the attitude Haringa describes on a number of horror message boards. In fact, the anti-intellectual, often reactionary stances I continually bumped into there is one of the reasons I no longer frequent message boards. Frankly, it started to make me resent and want to turn my back on the genre I love. Fortunately, I didn't. Instead, I turned my back on the message boards—a solution I highly recommend everyone adopt.

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 any genre—can only be one thing to the exclusion of all else is a surefire way to sentence it to the most invisible and irrelevant of literary ghettos, a punishment horror has already been suffering under for too long now. Without innovation, without authors who take the field in exciting new directions either through subject matter, writing style or a new, intelligent, literate approach to the material, the genre can only stagnate to the point of devolution. We've already see this countless times when it comes to Hollywood horror movies, now more than ever a snake that eats its own tail with endless remakes or increasingly lackluster reiterations of whatever was a hit last year. I know I'm not alone when I say I'd hate to see the same happen to horror literature.

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—and certainly no one says horror shouldn't exist as entertainment, but it's my opinion that turning up our noses at those who are trying to do something special with the genre by making it more than the sum of its parts can only hurt us. It's up to us, the writers and readers of the horror genre, to decide whether we'll invite the Thing on the Doorstep in or send it back out into the cold.

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.


Copyright © 2009, Nicholas Kaufmann. All Rights Reserved.

About Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas Kaufmann is an author, reviewer, interviewer and columnist living in Brooklyn, NY. His novella General Slocum's Gold was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and his most recent book, Chasing the Dragon, will be available in paperback from ChiZine Publications in March. For more regular doses of Kaufmannia, visit his blog at http://nick-kaufmann.livejournal.com or his website at http://www.nicholaskaufmann.com.

COMMENTS!

Nov 8, 00:53 by IROSF
Comment below!
Nov 8, 10:44 by Daniel M. Kimmel
As someone who teaches film genre, my feeling is that by the time something is ripe for parody it's the end of the line. Thus the Mafia line of gangster films come to an end with "Analyze This" and it's hard to take zombie stories as new and original after "Shaun of the Dead" and, one of my favorite films this year, "Zombieland." The most recent horror film worthy of the name is not the various retreads of sadoporn and remakes of '80s franchises, but the current "The Box." It makes us uneasy for precisely the reason suggested here: it makes us think.
Nov 8, 13:38 by Nader Elhefnawy
I don't read or watch much horror, but I did find this discussion interesting, especially in its touching on anti-intellectualism.

It seems to me that there actually is quite a bit of anti-intellectualism across all these genres (not intrinsic to them in my view, but common in them nonetheless). What else is one to make of, for instance, the "Frankenstein complex," or anything else in which seekers of knowledge are routinely punished for hubris (a theme admittedly more pervasive in "media" science fiction than the upmarket print stuff these days)?

In a movie like Deep Blue Sea or Alien Vs. Predator, for instance, the quester after knowledge, the scientist who probes into nature's secrets, is invariably killed while some "earthier," more physical type, like Thomas Jane's shark wrangler in the former movie, or Sanaa Lathan's Antarctic guide in the latter, survives to tell the tale.

To name something a bit further removed from horror as it is usually regarded, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica struck me as going to the extreme in pushing the anti-intellectual button (changing the villain Baltar from a power-hungry politician to a scientist-with a pronounced British accent no less, etc.).

It's also worth noting given the implicit politics of a large part of speculative fiction, and especially horror fiction, more broadly, and the associated politics of anti-intellectualism (at least, in American life). Stephen King, whose own politics have been the object of some debate during the past year, had a comment about this in his widely-anthologized essay "Why We Crave Horror Movies." (Accessible at http://iws.ccccd.edu/jdoleh/English%201301/Why%20We%20Crave%20Horror%20Movies.pdf).
Nov 9, 18:47 by David Gardner
I see several sides of this point.

First, there is an anti-intellectual element (and, as Nader pointed out, it's evident in sf&f as well as horror). There's also a virulently PRO-intellectual element, and they're frequently just as misguided. I can't count the number of times that I've heard the argument that if a work didn't "say something" ("something" usually taken in context to mean "make a political statement") that it was worthless. I heard this most often when I was getting my BA. The people who should have been learning how to think where instead being fed what they were supposed to be thinking.

And that brings me to my second point, a point I've tried to make as a writer, an editor and an instructor: "saying something" usually boils down to propaganda, for whatever side it's intended to support. My favorite alternate phrase is "engage your audience in a philosophical discussion." Don't tell them what to think. Instead, invite them to consider.
Nov 10, 13:06 by Nader Elhefnawy
I agree that it is very wrong to say that any work not making a political statement is without merit; and also that presenting ideas for consideration is a worthy option that is probably not tried enough.

However (and I am not saying this is what you're advocating) while people making points can get tiresome, I am also uncomfortable with the idea that statements should be avoided on the grounds that they necessarily make something "bad art." On the contrary, intense feeling about politics-like anything else-can be a powerful source of inspiration, and has been for any number of great works. Satire is inconceivable without it, and it's certainly not absent, even from the works we think of as canonical, classical or "timeless"-in which the politics simply tend to be less obvious because writers were more pressured to pay homage to the pieties of the day (funny how we rarely think of that as "political"), and because so many hot-button issues have long since ceased to be so. And of course, if one wants to broaden the definition of politics, almost anything can be construed as somehow political. (I think this idea is routinely taken too far, but can't be lightly dismissed.) Besides, a very large part of the time when someone puts down something for being political, what is going on is that they don't like its particular politics, while they are much less disturbed by equally political works they happen to agree with. (It's their prerogative to not like it; but they should at least be honest.)

In the end, the one rule I've found to hold in all the years I've been thinking about literature is that there are no rules, masterpieces having been created by breaking just about every single one, and advice to a writer that literature must do this or do that is misleading.
Nov 10, 15:18 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Nader, I tend to agree with you. As readers, I think we often label books whose messages we don't agree with as propaganda or preachy, while nodding in agreement with those books whose messages resonate with us. For example, a pro-war novel would probably rub me the wrong way, no matter how well written, while an anti-war novel would probably have me saying, "Gee, this author really has something to say."
Nov 10, 17:12 by Nader Elhefnawy
At the risk of looking like I'm making a shameless plug, I will say that war stories are a good example of that, Nicholas, in that they are particularly difficult to treat in a way that can honestly (rather than disingenuously) be called non-political; and that politics is almost inescapable in the military techno-thriller genre discussed in my article in this month's ediiton of IROSF (even without the constant stump speeches by the authors, many of whom were also very public commentators on these issues). The extrapolations and depictions on which they are founded necessarily assume some stance.
Nov 11, 14:01 by David Gardner
war stories are a good example of that, Nicholas, in that they are particularly difficult to treat in a way that can honestly (rather than disingenuously) be called non-political


I concur completely with this, and especially with the phrase "particularly difficult." I would argue that that's what separates a merely good work (in any genre, on any subject) from a great work. By way of example, the HBO (I think) miniseries Generation Kill presents a gamut of characters who collectively make clear the complexity of the situation in Iraq. I certainly have beliefs about Iraq and about our (U.S.) involvement there, but I didn't come away from Generation Kill thinking either:

"That was total crap! It disagreed with everything I think!", or
"That was great! It agreed with everything I say!"

What I did think was that the characters were interesting and honestly portrayed, and presented a wide range of reactions to the situation.

To be sure, some of these characters are a little more comic-bookish stereotypical than some of the others, but they're generally supporting characters that have plot-point responsibilities rather than the more central characters.

The extrapolations and depictions on which they are founded necessarily assume some stance.


If I understand this correctly, Nader, then I think I disagree with it completely. I'm going to make my point based on what I perceive you to be saying, but if I'm off-base, please correct me. My retort would be:

A story is about characters, the actions they take, their reactions, and how they change as a result of the conflict (by which I mean literary conflict and not martial conflict). The setting is window dressing. If the setting and the extrapolations ARE the story, then you have travelogue, history or some other literary form.
Nov 11, 14:44 by Nader Elhefnawy
I get what you're saying, and I don't think you're being unfair as to the reading of that line. In the military techno-thriller the setting and extrapolations very often are the story, as you put it; and even in the examples where more attention is given to character (for instance, Ralph Peters's The War in 2020) they are still a very important part of it (Peters in fact making his attitude toward the issues in the book very clear in an author's note at the end).

As to the other part of the comment: I haven't seen Generation Kill, and can't say anything about that. But I do think that one can make a point while still acknowledging the existence of different views and complexity. (Being able to see different sides of an issue is not to say that one must be completely relativistic in their outlook.)

And that there are many different ways to be "great," a level of achievement that does not boil down to a single type of distinction, or a single approach to a subject.
Nov 12, 13:39 by David Gardner
And that there are many different ways to be "great," a level of achievement that does not boil down to a single type of distinction, or a single approach to a subject.


Granted. Probably better to say "One attribute of a great work"; I'm not sure that I think a work can be great without this attribute, however, but that hinges on my belief that propaganda can be effective but cannot be great literature. Alan Cheuse once told me that "literature let's you live someone else's life for a while," and however I turn those two things over in my mind, propaganda (which is, as you say above, a disingenuous argument) is incompatible with that attempt at honestly showing life through another being's eyes.

On the other hand, I know plenty of people who disagree. Triumph of the Will is often called a masterpiece precisely because it excels at propagandizing.

I fear we've completely gotten away from discussing the original topic, though.
Nov 12, 17:51 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
As someone who teaches film genre, my feeling is that by the time something is ripe for parody it's the end of the line. Thus the Mafia line of gangster films come to an end with "Analyze This" and it's hard to take zombie stories as new and original after "Shaun of the Dead" and, one of my favorite films this year, "Zombieland." The most recent horror film worthy of the name is not the various retreads of sadoporn and remakes of '80s franchises, but the current "The Box." It makes us uneasy for precisely the reason suggested here: it makes us think.


I will second this, and quite frankly, it can't happen soon enough for me. Saw and its ilk are not horror but (and I love this new term) torture-porn. Where are the true horror novels and films? I would have to answer, Europe. Living in Canada I have the good luck to have access to British and European publishers that are seldom seen in the U.S.. Like Science Fiction, the best, most realistic (ei horrible) Horror is being published across the Atlantic. There are some notable exceptions, such as Dan Simmons (but even he seems more "European" than most North American authors). Compare, for instance The Descent with its Hollywood "remake" The Cave.

U.S. tastes for the last decade or more seem to be for simplistic, sensationalist gore-fests (in the case of Horror) and jingo-istic, pro-martial shoot-em-ups (S/F). While both of these tracks can be intellectually stimulating and useful, they are better suited to the anti-intellectualism so evidently on display in North America. More's the pity since American markets are what drive the entertainment industry.

If self parody is the end product of any particular sub-genre, (and the proliferation of products like Shaun of the Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies make a strong case), then perhaps there is some hope in sight fans of intelligent genre fiction.
Nov 12, 20:06 by Nicholas Kaufmann
"U.S. tastes for the last decade or more seem to be for simplistic, sensationalist gore-fests (in the case of Horror)"

I'm not sure that's entirely true. It may just be that that's what being produced--cheap, quick, forgettable entertainment to turn a buck--rather than what the audience truly wants. The recent big box office for Paranormal Activity, a quiet, creepy horror film, as well as the poor box office performance of Saw VI, go against the theory that all U.S. horror fans want is gorefests. Sometimes the smarter, scarier stuff really does come out on top.

"If self parody is the end product of any particular sub-genre, (and the proliferation of products like Shaun of the Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies make a strong case), then perhaps there is some hope in sight fans of intelligent genre fiction."

As someone who is over the zombie craze, here's hoping. Still, I've been announcing that zombies are "over" for years now, and I'm always wrong. Like the zombies themselves, nothing and no one seems to be able to kill the zeitgeist!
Nov 12, 21:22 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Nicholas Kaufmann said:
I'm not sure that's entirely true. It may just be that that's what being produced--cheap, quick, forgettable entertainment to turn a buck--rather than what the audience truly wants. The recent big box office for Paranormal Activity, a quiet, creepy horror film, as well as the poor box office performance of Saw VI, go against the theory that all U.S. horror fans want is gorefests. Sometimes the smarter, scarier stuff really does come out on top.


I would think that movies such as Paranormal Activity are the exception that prove the rule. (Anecdotal, I know) I have read several reviews and posts on internet forums written by people who absolutely hated it, having seen a film very different from what they thought they were going to see. Granted, it is a clever, intelligent creepy film, but its success is an anomaly. The Blair Witch Project was a huge success too, but it had a negligible impact on horror film. And as I recall, the greater part of the audience at the time absolutely hated it (vomit-cam aside).

In the end, I believe it comes down to scale. With a market as big as (theoretically) 350 million potential movie goers, films like PA and TBWP only need a hundredth of that to be huge successes. Their success does not mean that the much larger general audience needs or even wants intelligent, thought provoking horror. The latest Saw movie may have been a flop, but there is enough of an audience to get the studios to make six of them. How many The Blair Witch Projects did we get? And how many of those were good?

On the zombie front; I don't think that the craze will die any time soon. The modern zombie is a manifestation of our current Western zeitgeist in the same way that the vampire was a manifestation of Victorian sexual fear/desire. Our jaded, post-modern, soon to be post-industrial culture has so few things left that can horrify us; the Cold War post-nuclear-apocalypse is 20 years dead, automaton/belligerent artificial intelligences were a manifestation of the fears of mechanization of the late 1970s and the 1980s, science gone amok is a hold over of our grandparents' generation unable to sustain itself far beyond of the 1950s. What we have left is viral warfare, loss of conscious agency, the desire to consume indescriminately and the fear of the atavistic inner ape. These things modern zombies so wonderfully embody. Until some other cultural subconscious fright comes along to be reflected in our entertainment media, I am afraid we are stuck with them.
Nov 14, 16:19 by David Gardner
U.S. tastes for the last decade or more seem to be for simplistic, sensationalist gore-fests (in the case of Horror)


One thing I would point out re: this point is that the market for most horror is young people, kids and teenagers. 40-50 years ago they would have been viewing similar movies in drive-ins, or reading similar stories in pulps. Obviously there are exceptions, but generally this audience is not looking for either literary quality or intellectual positions.

It may just be that that's what being produced--cheap, quick, forgettable entertainment to turn a buck--rather than what the audience truly wants.


I think Nicholas is speaking to the same point that I quoted at top. I disagree, Nicholas, at least from a certain standpoint. The audience is the people who pay (for the books, the magazines,the tickets), and if they weren't paying then the lower-grade product to which you're referring would disappear. Most of these lower-quality horror films for instance, do great box office for the first weekend then drop off quickly, primarily because the kids who are excited about seeing them (their intended audience) see them on opening weekend.

In other words, the product is what the intended audience really wants, but the bulk of the intended audience is not discerning, and this is a good thing for the producers. Not so good in a sense for those of us who are the discerning parts of the audience, but at the same time the production of the lower-grade material (and the money it makes) opens the doors for the occassional production of higher grade material.
Nov 15, 18:06 by Janine Stinson
As a 30+ year reader of SF/F/H, I'm glad to see knowledgable perspectives on horror (regardless of delivery method) find their way to IROSF. I hope more of them will appear in this forum.

I have a question. Science fiction and horror have been combined in short fiction and novel-length form, but from my admittedly limited reading in this area, there haven't been many examples of it since around 1999. Are there read-worthy novels that might be covered by the term "SF horror" which were published in the last decade, and could you (plural) provide titles?

Of the few I've read in this area, Peter Watts' Rifters books (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth:B-Max and Behemoth: Seppuku) and his stand-alone novel Blindsight are very good examples of SF infused (infected?) with horror. An atmosphere of constant unease pervades these books, even after scenes where an obstacle is overcome with force (usually a cathartic moment for a reader). "Edgy" is an overused word, but that's the best one-word description I can think of right now.

And no, I'm not related to him or employed by him. :) Just an admirer of his work.
Nov 16, 04:54 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Janine, The Road by Cormac McCarthy springs immediately to mind as the kind of hybrid novel you mention. It's got a science-fictional setting but is infused throughout with the dread of a horror novel. It's a somewhat divisive novel, but I happened to love it.
Nov 16, 15:57 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Dan Simmons' S/F work is also infused with horror, although it is usually reserved for his antagonists rather than atmospheric. The Shrike from Hyperion Cantos, Setebos and Caliban from Illium and Olypmos are fairly horrific creations. Simmons' skill at horror is, of course, more clearly seen in his straight up horror novels, but his Science Fiction is certainly informed by it.
Nov 16, 17:15 by Nader Elhefnawy
I'd second the take on Watts's Blindsight as having something of a horror feel, and Simmons's Shrike (and some of his other creations, as with the aliens in "Muse of Fire") have that quality too.
Nov 18, 16:08 by David Gardner
Bluejack,

Have you ever thought about instituting an open discussion forum? What you have is great dor discussing the articles you publish, but I'm thinking about something that could let people share info on topics on their own choosing. GEnie used to be pretty good for that kind of thing.
Nov 20, 21:41 by Bluejack
Sure David,

We've definitely talked about it. There's actually nothing to prevent that happening now, but something about the user interface makes it a little less conducive to that kind of discussion than we would like.

We're going through some thinking about the user interface now, and figuring out how to make the forums into something better is very much on the table.

Thanks for raising the point!
Nov 25, 00:26 by David Gardner
Thanks for the response, Bluejack. As I read through this thread it just looked like we were going in several different directions, all of which could lead to interesting discussions, but at least some of which seemed to be getting away from discussing the article itself.

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