VJ Books Blog

(Publisher’s Weekly, Nov. 12, Gregory Frost)

Once Upon a Time…Horror
November 11, 2008

Once upon a time there was a thing called “horror.” This was decades and decades before a publishing category of this name came along. Respectable writers of great literature full of passion, love, desire, anger, retribution–really the whole spectrum of human emotion–did not shy away from the darkest, discomfiting elements, either, when a story called for such a thing. It was Henry James teasing out the madness of a governess in the face of ghostly manipulation of her young charges, or M.R. James (unrelated to Henry) describing how an unnatural essence inhabited a bed sheet, causing it to rise up and twist and crumple into a ghastly imitation of a face. It was Saki telling a sly story about an open window to frighten both character and reader out of their wits. It was Shirley Jackson tipping her character Eleanor off the brink of sanity in a house all but drenched in evil.

Horror was an effect. It was a writer of skill using her talent to scare the hell out of her readers. And, as I said, great writers from Elizabeth Bowen to Isak Dinesen invested now and again in the pleasures of terrifying readers. And why not? The desire to be startled and scared has to be as ancient as the campfire.

My favorite example of “Horror, the effect,” however–and I pull it out in classes all the time–is John Irving. In his serio-comic novel The World According to Garp, Irving has the book turn upon an event of monumental horror. The wonderful thing about it is that once you’ve read it, you can see the mechanism itself, making Irving like a great magician who knows that even if you see how the trick was done, you’ll still be awed by it. Early on in the book, the author relates how his character, Garp, loves to scare his two children by zooming down a hill in their VW Bug, at night, with the headlights off, and then shooting right up their steep driveway. It’s a rollercoaster ride that delights everyone in the car.

Then, one night, halfway through the book, Garp’s wife and her lover are parked in his car at the top of the driveway in the dark. She is performing oral sex upon said boyfriend when Garp and the boys come ripping down the hill and up the driveway . . . Fade to black. That’s the first moment of horror, but Irving’s not done with you yet. Cut to the family in the aftermath, in smoldering rehabilitation, while the author quietly, cleverly describes their situation individually and as a group–except that he leaves out one of the children for a very very long time. This is the second–and sustained–passage of horror, brimming with a growing dread that’s as all-consuming as anything H.P. Lovecraft ever scribbled. This is an author who knows precisely what he is doing to his reader and who can control you like a man with his fingers on your personal remote.

Horror, then, embedded in any fictive landscape, is effect. It is no different than Woody Allen explaining in an essay that he’s not sure he believes in an afterlife but that he’s taking a change of underwear just in case. You laugh. You’re supposed to. The writer knows what he’s evoking and, even if it’s intuitive, how to do it.

Horror became a publishing category–a genre–sometime after Fred Mustard Stewart and Ira Levin had shown that a horror novel could be both good fiction and hugely best-selling. The cause was a phenomenon named Stephen King. This is important, this understanding of King as a phenomenon. It’s something that the publishing world didn’t get. They saw the huge sales figures of Mr. King and determined that the well of horror must be bottomless and would make them wildly rich. You have to understand, while publishers always strive to know what the next big thing is going to be, the best they can do in reality is identify what the last big thing was.

Brief digression by way of explanation: I once heard an editor from St. Martins talk about how he turned down The Nanny Diaries. It was, he said, an awful thing, so awful that even knowing how successful it was in retrospect, if it had come across his desk again at that moment, he would still have turned it down. Publishing in general tried to tap into that phenomenon, too, with poor remunerative results. While it sold, its copyists were not going to do appreciably so well. Back to our story. Mr. King probably singlehandedly is responsible for bookstores erecting horror sections, which both represented and segregated horror novels from the rest of general fiction, the same as science fiction sections segregated both sf and fantasy, while also failing to distinguish between the two. What happened as a result of stacking all the horror books is that horror (to borrow from the genre) devoured itself.

The vast majority of the horror genre published in the 1980s and early 90s came in the form of the mass market paperback. And with the careful consideration of fingerpainting kindergarteners everywhere, art directors at publishing houses came up with “brilliant” covers for the books. These covers all pretty much looked like this: Silver foil lettering of a liquified, unreadable font embossed upon a black cover that displayed an enormous human skull with popping mad eyeballs, also in bas-relief. Sometimes like a house it dripped blood. Sometimes it was just laughing at you. Now, one or two of those, spread throughout a fiction section, might not have a particularly deleterious effect, but you fill an entire wall with them, and you have a bunch of butt-ugly skull-festooned books that all look the same. No one over the age of fifteen wanted to be caught dead, or even zombified, anywhere near them. The rush to capitalize on the imagined popularity of horror probably would have killed the youngest genre all by itself. But publishing went even further in the creation of a horror sub-genre dubbed “splatterpunk.” This is, so far as I know, the only literary (I apply this term loosely) genre with no literary precedent. Splatterpunk fiction derived from film. It was the deformed lovechild of Lucio Fulci and assorted other purveyors of intestinal FX porn. Horror, the effect so carefully crafted by all those who had come before, was missing entirely from these books, where characters were too busy slipping in knee-deep guts, eyeballs, and dismemberment to find it. It wasn’t horrific, it was just awful–and not in the sense that word originally meant. So, between badly written books and badly presented books, the publishing industry managed in short order to strangle its creature.

Most of those who wrote horror in that period found themselves suddenly unwelcome to pitch new books. Short horror fiction became largely relegated to online gore-zines, and serious editors in the genre, like Ellen Datlow, found that dark anthologies became tougher sells. The writers either continued to be marginalized, or they shifted gears and moved into writing fantasy or some other category of fiction. Some had established themselves well enough before the category collapsed that they could still publish. But now the fiction wasn’t called horror anymore.

The sf and fantasy market had been, over time, compartmentalizing more and more while outside influences were invading, carrying off bits, or adding new bits that hadn’t been there, or hadn’t been visible. A television series, Beauty and the Beast, revealed to publishers that there was an enormous cash cow to be found in combining the romance genre with the fantastic. Romance readers wanted some new and different flavors, and they got them with heroes who were great bare-chested lion-headed creatures (think “cat-faced Fabio”). And once that sub-genre filled up, there were romance novels with ghosts, or romance novels with time-travellers. Displaced horror, leaking into fantasy, bred urban fantasy–dark, gritty inner city tales of werewolves, very nasty elves, and demons. And vampires.

While the horror genre had collapsed, the figure of the vampire remained the last man standing. The undead really were proving impossible to kill. Interestingly, the survival of that figure probably hinged on the writer Anne Rice, who was not being marketed as a fantasy or horror writer. The success of the first few Lestat de Lioncourt novels provoked a new feeding frenzy in publishing, and off we went on the vampire thrill ride, which is still going today, as is the proliferation of sub-genres. Urban fantasy, dark fantasy, young adult fantasy, high fantasy, erotic fantasy, romance fantasy . . . probably as many flavors of fantasy as there are flavors of quarks. Probably the BDSM crowd could pick out “top” and “bottom” fantasy for me, too.

Does it mean anything, all this pigeonholing? I don’t know. Maybe it means readers in general have become like the Harlequin Romance readers of old: they just want their six new titles in their teeny category every month and nothing else. Horror, swept away while this has gone on, has re-emerged as a component underneath the “thriller” umbrella, probably coming in through the serial-killer side door. I’ve been told that Scott Smith’s superb The Ruins was to have ushered in a category dubbed “literary horror,” although I’m almost certain that Thomas Harris would argue he’s been delivering that for a very long time now.

Where this is all going or what it means in any practical sense to writers, I cannot say. I would like for the genre-formerly-known-as-horror to survive in some form for purely personal reasons. I could approach this from a slipstream/interstitial perspective and say that all the colors are running together, and say that it’s about time–because God forbid I should pick up a comic contemporary novel and have it, at some point, scare the living hell out of me. While publishers, and bookstores, and even hopeful writers work to make sense of these sub-categories, nobody I know who is writing it seriously is worrying themselves to sleep over what pigeonhole their current work will fit into. We are just writing the thing we wanted to write.

Ultimately, all fiction is fantasy, just as most of it contains mystery. I don’t need genre labels to tell me that. That’s just how stories work.