‘Horror’ for Halloween

What is horror? As a genre, I mean. I thought this would be an appropriate question for this year’s Halloween post. Also, I’ve been following James Smythe’s ongoing series “Rereading Stephen King” in The Guardian, and it’s been a trip down memory lane for me, allowing me to reflect on the genre in ways I didn’t when I was really reading a lot of it as a teenager.

Before I leap into the discussion though, I feel it’s important to point out that horror fiction has seen better days. Zombies and vampires may be big on TV, but — in so far as there are bookstores left — there really aren’t many shops that have a whole section devoted to the horror genre, certainly not in the way they did in the 80’s (which was “horror’s boom time,” according to the Horror Writers Association).

Stephen King Pet SemataryAt one point in his ‘reread’ of Pet Sematary, Smythe notes, “Horror has something of a bad reputation these days, surrounded by constant claims that, as a literary genre, it’s on its last legs: there are, after all, only so many ways you can tell a ghost story.” There is a continuing non-mainstream fan base, of course; thriving offshoots, such as Weird; and Stephen King and Anne Rice were on the cover of Costco Connection this month, but the scene is nothing like it used to be.

Partly that’s because of the limitations of the genre, mired as it is in gothic tropes, cliches as old as folklore, and repetitive scare tactics. The great flourishing that began in the 70’s now seems stultified. Perhaps it never was a cohesive genre in the way that mystery novels are, but certainly, for a time, it seemed to be.

Yet horror never struck me as limited to horror tropes. It’s not about werewolves, witches, or wyrms. It’s not about spooky thrills, at all. Instead, the genre is defined by that heart-hammering, head-expanding feeling one gets when reading something that goes beyond fear into something more disturbing. Smythe summarizes this well:

Coming back to [Pet Sematary] after nearly 20 years, I was faintly nervous. I remembered how the book made me feel, even if I didn’t necessarily recall its content. It’s curious: scares don’t stay with me, not really; but horror (something that makes you question beliefs, emotional and moral responses, yourself even) hangs around.

In an interview at Electric Lit, Victor LaValle nailed what really causes this feeling. He said that real horror is the realization that “there is a God and it’s not there.” His example of a real monster was The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story. “To me that’s terrifying to contemplate. By comparison, even H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Gods mythos is too optimistic.”

The revelation ‘there is God that is not there,’ which is not the same thing as there being no God, is horror because it sits in your brain and you can’t shake it off or make light of it. Call it a wake-up call. Horror in fiction, in its purest form, is an attempt to rip back the covering on the things in life that we most desperately want to avoid, to give the reader the experience of what Kurtz felt at the end of his life in Heart of Darkness:

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—

“The horror! The horror!”

Horror is the only genre of escapism that doesn’t let the reader escape, the only one in which everyone dies in the end. As Chuck Palahniuk put it in Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” Horror is the genre that makes us feel the truth of that statement in our bones.

People want and need ‘the horror’ because it helps to spend some time mentally wrestling with reality’s starkest secrets and grimmest moments in advance of having to actually deal with them directly. And that is not something that is limited to the genre of horror at all.

There is very little that is scary anymore about Dracula. Or the mummy. Or Frankenstein’s monster. We’ve seen it all before. And “horror has once again become primarily about emotion. It is once again writing that delves deep inside and forces us to confront who we are, to examine what we are afraid of, and to wonder what lies ahead down the road of life” (from that essay by the Horror Writers Association again).


“Aboborado” by André Koehne

But is it any wonder that readers, faced with the bleak frontier of a genre removed of the trappings of ghosts and goblins they love, have abandoned it for other forms of escapism. Because, in the final analysis, true horror is hopelessness. And I’ll take a good old Jack-o’-lantern over that any day.

Happy Halloween!

Writing Tips

First Lines

In a commentary at the Atlantic Monthly, Stephen King remarked, “A really bad first line can convince me not to buy a book — because, god, I’ve got plenty of books already — and an unappealing style in the first moments is reason enough to scurry off.”

He then noted that first lines are just as important for writers, citing the way we agonize over them and then listing the ones from his own work that he can remember. He explains:

But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote — and I learned it from Cain, and learned it from Fairbairn — is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: You’ve been here before.

Joe Fassler, collecting King’s thoughts for the Monthly, put together a rather lengthy and interesting list of authors’ favorite first lines from literature. It’s well worth checking out.

American Book Review, for which I used to write reviews once upon a time, has also pulled together a list of “100 Best First Lines From Novels.” And for a more esoteric collection, you can check out Flavorwire’sOur 30 Favorite Opening Lines from Literature.”


Lovecraft eZine Megapacks

The Lovecraft eZine, a monthly magazine featuring Lovecraftian horror and the Cthulhu Mythos, has released a couple of collections or “megapacks” of stories for purchase as an ebook.  The first, collecting issues 1-9 of the eZine, includes my story The Slickens.

Given a “thumbs-up” by Lovecraft guru S.T. Joshi, The Lovecraft eZine regularly publishes well-known writers such as Stephen Mark Rainey, W.H. Pugmire, Ann K. Schwader, Joseph S. Pulver, William Meikle, me and many more.

The stated goal of The Lovecraft eZine is “to provide high quality Lovecraftian fiction at a reasonable price,” and I’d say they’ve pretty much knocked it out of the park.  If you like Mythos fiction, it’s a publication and community well worth checking out!


You can also get a copy of the 2012 megapack here.


Films About Fiction: ‘Paper Man’ and ‘The Answer Man’

I’m putting these two movies in the same post because Jeff Daniels plays essentially the same character in both. They also came out in the same year, 2009. And not coincidentally they both have the word ‘man’ in the title.

These movies are about a man. He is struggling with middle age, coming to grips with his life and the choices/mistakes he made; he is learning to accept himself.

But at first he’s deeply unhappy. Despite being a successful writer, or perhaps because of it, he is an emotional child. He’s not a misanthrope — and therefore of no relation to the type we saw in Young Adult (2011). This guy actually likes people.  

But he hates himself.

Because of his self loathing, he’s isolated, experiencing ennui, and in need of companionship. He’s a hermit and a sad sack.

In The Answer Man, he’s written a book of Q&A’s with God and now everybody thinks he can actually talk to God, only he can’t, so he’s living a lie. In Paper Man, he’s written a novel, and it was a failure, so now he’s having writer’s block and generally lamenting his unproductive life (he also never had kids). The misery leads to outlandish behavior, a.k.a. hijinks, until he meets a woman who sets him straight.

We’ve got this guy who can’t seem to figure himself out and acts like a jerk until he’s ‘fixed‘ through a positive encounter with a person of the opposite sex, in one case romantically and in the other case more father-daughter.

So why a writer? Why not make this man an office drone burnout (like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt).  Because writers in films are generally indulged their eccentricities the way ‘normal’ people are not.  In fact, their idiosyncrasies are mined for entertainment value — and middle-aged writers especially are depicted as introverts struggling with inner demons (think Paul Giamatti in Sideways or Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction. For that matter, think of the protagonist of Adaptation or any movie penned by Spike Jonze).

By virtue of a certain artistic mystique, these characters allow the audience to indulge in empathetic sympathy for that neurotic self-torment we all engage in to some degree.

Notably, being writers also allows them to wax eloquent about things perceived as beyond the ken of everyday folks — in the case of these two films, that thing is spirituality and the extirpation of the heath hen. This is useful for the screenwriters, I guess, as it gives them a soap box.

Perhaps these everyman heros have to be writers simply because that makes them easy proxies for the screenwriter. And, therefore, to a lesser extent, us all. All insecurities manifest.

Writing Tips

Grievous commonalities, a.k.a. clichés

Writing While the Rice Boils assembled an impressive list of genre clichés you should be on the lookout for as a writer. They span every genre from Science Fiction to Romance, and even include ‘Literary Cliches,’ which brings to my next link…

The Millions has a list of clichés you can expect to find (and probably ought to kill with fire) in a literary novel.  ‘Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List’ includes this illuminating illustration:

This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!

Still, despite all that, sometimes clichés are awesome. No really. I’m reading Infinite Jest right now (and probably will be for the foreseeable future) and David Foster Wallace makes brilliant and varied use of a veritable lunacy of clichés. So much so that there’s a Wikipedia entry about it.

A more mundane discussion of the value of clichés can be found at Seth Grodin’s blog, where Seth concludes, “The effective way to use a cliché is to point to it and then do precisely the opposite. Juxtapose the cliché with the unexpected truth of what you have to offer.”

Writing Tips

W.G. Sebald’s Writing Tips Are Great

Most writing tips are redundant or repetitious, some are amusing; W.G. Sebald‘s rise above because they take into account literature’s historical progression and include quotable lines like, “be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.”  The list came via a friend of a friend, and it’s quite extensive. For brevity’s sake, I’ll re-post the only his advice on ‘Style’ and ‘Revision’:

On Style

  • Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.
  • Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.
  • It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.
  • Long sentences prevent you from having continually to name the subject (‘Gertie did this, Gertie felt that’ etc.).
  • Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.
  • Use the word ‘and’ as little as possible. Try for variety in conjunctions.

On Revision 

  • Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork.
  • Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.
  • Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.

And for even more inspiration on editing, check this post from Flavorwire of “20 Great Writers on the Art of Revision.” To summarize: Rewrite it, murder your darlings, get the words right, and good luck.


Shirley Jackson

Since it’s Halloween, I thought a little post about Shirley Jackson would be appropriate.

Called “that patron saint of oddballs” recently by Salon, the contradictions of Shirley Jackson are perhaps best summed up by her final, unfinished work, Come Along With Me.

Although The Lottery is an amazing short story that broke the minds of New Yorker readers when it was printed, and The Haunting of Hill House is a fan favorite novel, I think her oeuvre is too often defined by these particular works. Usually she wasn’t half that dark, even while dealing with eerie and sometimes supernatural themes.

Come Along With Me, the last thing she wrote, is as good a place as any to try to understand what I mean. The novel fragment is narrated by an unnamed woman who claims to speak with spirits. She arrives in a strange boarding house wanting to perform a seance and is accepted only with suspicion by the people of that place. She is an outsider, the stability of her psychology is questionable and her place in the community is far from certain. Woman, outsider, maybe crazy: These are traits she shares with almost all the Jackson heroines; they’re all a bit like good-humored versions of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar. And from their gently tilted perspectives we’re given a unique view of mid-century American society.

Consider this line from Come Along With Me:

He looked at me; I must say I like it better when they look at you; a lot of the time people seem to be scared of finding out that other people have real faces, as though if you looked at a stranger clearly and honestly and with both eyes you might find yourself learning something you didn’t actually want to know.

That’s the kind of perspective you find from Jackson, something utterly true and strange. Her stories shiver with an unreality that reveals the inherent complexity in even the most ordinary activity and then imbues it with bizarre connotation.

I love this cover, although it doesn’t reflect the book.

Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Short Stories

The Value of Prizes

It’s been interesting times for literary prizes of late, what with the debate about the Nobel winner, and then the lack of a Pulitzer for fiction.

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury,” made an awkward apology for the fiction fumble produced by this year’s Pulitzer committee, but did little to assuage bemusement.

Cunningham waxes eloquent on the philosophy of giving prizes in genera, as well.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

The three books put forward by his committee were given consideration by the Pulitzer judges, but “none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” explained Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prize. “This is the 11th time this has happened in the fiction category; the last time was 1977. It’s unusual, but it does occur.”

Maureen Corrigan, another member of the selection committee, wrote an excellent and outraged response piece, “I’m angry on behalf of those novels,” arguing that to not award a prize is basically to dismiss the novels.  And the point of a prize isn’t to diss the finalists, but to praise them.

More recently, the Guardian UK aired a complaint about a claim by the chair of the BBC International Short Story Award that all short stories need to have a twist.  Of course they don’t and the complaint is valid, but even more interesting is the fact that the complaint’s author used it as a jumping off for a larger point:

Once again, the pronouncement that comes from the chair of this year’s distinguished panel of judges – writers and critics both, who have made a life out of thinking about fiction and what makes it valuable – is privileged over those other, more informed voices, to have the soundbite that carries.

There is tremendous tension surrounding all of these literary debates, and as author Elizabeth Baines put it in her Fiction Bitch blog, “A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.”

What’s more, it strikes me that the only winners in these scuffles are people who think awards are pointless, such as this New Yorker online commenter posting under the name PETNARD:

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop even giving prizes like this. Sure it’s helpful for the unknown author, but, like the Oscars, college rankings, or any other award system, what’s the purpose of picking out “one best”? It’s an arbitrary and subjective process that artificially crowns just one best. What’s more useful, perhaps, is at the end of each year, list the best books published, regardless of how many (4, 10, 13, whatever). Pitting books of different genres, stories, styles against one another is as useless as pitting one actor against another who performed in very different stories and styles.

I find this a backwards perspective.  Awards are like pro-wrestling.  They’re not really real, but just because its phoney doesn’t diminish its value.  Plenty of people love pro-wrestling. And the acrobatics can’t be faked.  It’s not about determining a championship.  It’s about the spectacle of it all, and the attendant attention.

What awards do is add value to artists and their expression. The Oscars would never not give an award, because they know this.

Pulitzer medal

Book Covers, Uncategorized

A Book by its Cover

We’ve all heard the story by now of how the printing press revolutionized Western society and launched the Reformation.  

Before Gutenberg, books were made by hand.  Often by monks.  Sometimes over the course of a lifetime.  And each was treasured. The covers were embossed leather, wood or even ivory and studded with gems.  While this pre-printing press-style scribing has not entirely died out, it’s now a curio.

Bookmaking as we know it today began with the printing press and, more importantly, movable type.  Modern book styling was born from the ability to automate the printing process, although for a long time these books were still being bound individually.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century the cloth book cover was finally invented.

Finally, the 20th-century mass-market paperback was invented and, combined with widespread literacy, helped launched the pulp fiction era.

At first pulp covers were wonderfully lurid and low-brow, even on high-brow books, but over time paperbacks became almost industry standard.  Then the “trade paperback” and “literary paperbacks” made them respectable, a shift which set the tone for covers for many years IMHO.

Then came the copy machine revolution (full disclosure, my first publications were in zines), and now, of course, ebooks threaten to sweep away the need for a book cover entirely.  Which, despite the old saw that you should “never judge a book by its cover,” is sad to some of us.

Things are changing.  Book art is quickly becoming an anachronism.  A new revolution is happening.  Wikileaks has nailed its ninety-five theses to the castle church of the internet. There may always be images that help sell stuff, but that’s not the same.

In all the excitement I hope that we never forget that great book covers are something worth celebrating.