‘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!


Return of the Grotesque?

An unwinnable war, an economic recession, and an ecological disaster make it a good time to reconsider that beloved medieval genre, the grotesque.

So opined Jesse Tangen-Mills in a recent Rain Taxi review.  It’s a sentiment with which I tend agree, and recently I have been reading histories of ‘the grotesque’ to get a better handle on what it is exactly, and how it differs from horror, satire, surrealism and other things with which it is often equated.

What I have gleaned is that the grotesque came not from images of gore as modern use of the term might make you think, but rather from cave paintings (cave, aka “grotto,” hence “grotto-esque” or grotesque).  It was originally applied to a style of visual art featuring human-animal hybrid monsters as its predominant motif.  Over time (and here I’m cutting history to the nub), the art style inspired a theatrical and literary genre that featured sympathetic freaks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was eventually and indelibly linked to horror by Edgar Allen Poe, and has been applied as a descriptor for the literature of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and others.

However, like some semi-gelatinous clabber, it remains debatable whether it has truly solidified into a modern literary genre.  Nevertheless, it amuses me to believe that it could exist as a distinct collection of absurdist weirdness, surrealist satire and cosmic horror.  In other words, just the kind of stuff I like.

Genre, Short Stories, Writing Tips

Short Stories

When it comes to fiction, it’s an interesting fact that size matters.  I’ve been thinking about this because I recently downloaded Dubliners, James Joyce’s collection of stories, from Gutenberg and have been rereading the stories on my phone.  (Yes, my phone, whatevs).

It’s funny to think, but there was a time when you could find a short story in most any periodical, and they were even somewhat culturally relevant.  Some speculate the internet will lead to a Renaissance for short fiction, but it hasn’t materialized.  And may never.

Novels sell so much better that it has engendered an entire genre of collections of (occasionally very vaguely) interconnected short stories that get called novels. You see more an more of these things all the time.  I believe if Dubliners was published today, it would have been marketed as “Dubliners: A Novel,” just to garner sales.

But, of course, the difference between short stories, novellas and novels is about much more than length.  Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on how to write short stories, I’m tempted to say the difference is in digression.

Usually a really effective short story does not digress from its main objective, and it delivers its meaning in a single bold stroke of insight.  But a novel can go all over the place.  In this way some novels really do end up like a collection of short stories, although, of course, there is usually some ultimate coherence.

That said, there are more than a few ways to bring focus to the short story genre. Atlantic Monthly Fiction Editor C. Michael Curtis has detailed a couple of the main ways:

A short story can “work” in a number of ways, depending on the author’s intentions.  Some stories, the ones I tend to admire most, are “dynamic.”  That is, they move forward toward a resolution of some kind, and have a fulcrum, or transforming moment, for which the author prepares us, and toward which the action of the story is plainly directed.  This transforming moment provides a change of some sort: a concrete change of circumstance, an illuminating and life-altering insight, a moment of clarity, an authentic glimpse of the self, or the like.

The other familiar story type is “static,” or rooted in the moment.  Such stories are meant to explore “How Things Are,” rather than where they’re going or ought to go.  They depend upon shrewdness of insight, elasticity of language, a gift for weaving together apparently disparate elements into a revealing and organic whole.  They illuminate problems rather than follow characters toward decisive action, and many are both shrewd about human behavior, and entertaining in their use of language and paradox.

So, we’ve got dynamic and static short stories, what you might call stories and sketches.  There are other styles you are probably familiar with, such as the O. Henry twist.  Joyce liked to say his story technique was to seek out epiphanies.  Whatever you call it, each technique is just another way to accomplish the same thing: to apply pressure to the story. To compress it.  And that’s perhaps exactly why short stories aren’t as powerful as novels for modern readers.

Readers of fiction, the ones that read large quantities of fiction, do so to escape the real world.  And hence they want that escape to draw them back in and go on and on. Witness what sells.  Short stories aren’t really doing it for these readers, because the whole purpose of the short story is precisely the opposite.  If what you want is a long digression, a short punch in the face isn’t going to satisfy your want.

Thankfully, there are still some people who love short stories, and the genre is widely recognized as an important way for writers to practice craft.  At a recent event at 826 Valencia, Daniel Alarcón referred to short stories as “a gateway drug.”  And given the addictive nature of writing, maybe that’s just what they are.  They get people started down the path that will lead them to those novels that the public loves.

Plus, sometimes, they’re just frickin’ awesome.


William Emery wrote a great response to this post over at 365 Crush.  (If this keeps up, I’m going to have to open this blog up to comments!)

Genre, Sci Fi

"A Monotonous Death," the decline of science fiction

While we’re on the subject of Philip K. Dick, I want to consider the implications of an interesting quote of his I recently came across.   What he said — in a 1981 letter to the producers of Blade Runner — was this:

… I came to the conclusion that Blade Runner is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison [Ford] said: futurism. … Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale.

In a speech at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, Blade Runner director Ridley Scott echoed Dick’s sentiment, saying that science fiction as a genre had died and gone the way of Westerns.  “There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it,” he said.

So, Is Sci Fi Dying?

Calling Blade Runner futurism and the rest of science fiction dead suggests to me not that sci fi has actually died (genres don’t die, per se, anyway), but that the game may have changed.  And I have seen a lot of convincing writing that supports such a position.

On the Guardian UK Book Blog, Damian Walter asked the question, “Are we now post sci-fi?”  And he answered his own question with a resounding yes:

The walls that defined speculative fiction as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China Miéville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal. The post-sci-fi era is an exciting one to be reading in.

While I agree, I would say the integration of science fiction into mainstream literature and vice versa has been happening for a longer time than he gives it credit for.

A Way of Writing

Science fiction was really always two things; it was a genre (or group of genres) that appealed to a certain fan base, in other words a marketing category.  But it was also a tool set, a way of writing, that has been used since at least the 19th C. for talking about the world.

Over at Conceptual Fiction, Ted Gioia makes a thorough case for this, starting with the premise that “the idea of ‘realism’ as a guiding principle for fiction is itself unrealistic” and that playing with our collective idea of reality is part of the point of all fiction, not just science fiction.

Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.—have very strict limitations on their plots, characters, narrative structures, etc.  A mystery book is expected to present a crime and a solution to the crime.  A romance book must have a love story that proceeds along more or less familiar lines.  These formulas must be followed at all costs.

But the science fiction and fantasy categories were far more freeform.  Almost anything could happen in these books, provided they played some game with our concept of reality.  The only promises these works made were to astound and delight us.   This was not a formula—indeed it was the exact opposite of a formula.

Just look at the names of the early sci-fi magazines:  they were called Amazing or Astounding or Fantastic or tagged with some equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite: Weird Tales).  Ah, what could be grander than magazines that forged such extravagant covenants with their readers?  Not even The New Yorker promises that every issue will be astounding.

In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into the genre pigeonhole.  And given their focus on surprising and delighting readers—rather than following strict formulas of plot development and resolution—it was inevitable that “serious writers” would begin borrowing from these scorned writers who existed at the fringes of the literary world.

Sci fi is not only a genre, but a also way of writing — perhaps even a way of seeing the world — that can be used by any genre and even in non-fiction.

The SF Reading Skillset

Jo Walton at the blog has made essentially the same observation, as well.  What makes his different and worth mentioning is that he describes the readers of sci fi as having an “SF reading skillset.”

We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time—and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.

Orwell is a great example for why the SF Reading Skillset has become so popular and important.  So much of what he invented as sci fi has become a way to describe our modern world — big brother, doublespeak, etc. — that it evidences what I think had changed by 1981 (or, I suppose, 1984) that prompted Dick’s comment.

The World Caught Up

In an article at the New Scientist, Marcus Chown argues that an accelerating pace of technological advancement has defined the entire history of sci fi.

It is no coincidence that [science fiction] emerged as a recognisable genre with writers such as Jules Verne in the late 19th century, an era when, for the first time in history, children could expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents. As change accelerated in the 20th century, science fiction mushroomed.

He eloquently argues what many have said, that “science fiction is the literature of change.”  And he links this to the emergence and importance of the science fiction as a whole.

But now consider what William Gibson, another author whose sci fi neologisms have entered the vernacular, had to say in an interview not long ago:

If I’m going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I’m going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. ‘Cause I’m going to have to go beyond that. And I think over the course of these last two books–I don’t think I’m done yet–I’ve been getting a yardstick together. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.

We live in a world in which the things we take for granted today will almost certainly be different in unexpected ways faster than our ability to write about, and probably even comprehend, them.  Science and technology have overtaken almost all aspects of our lives.  

The pace of change has accelerated from hyperactive to ludicrous.

Perhaps this is what Dick meant when he called Blade Runner futurism:  The world is changing so fast that we need the “SF reader skillset” to just get through the morning news.  Thus, Science Fiction is Not Dead and Will Never Be Dead! But the genre, i.e. marketing category, may indeed be in decline.

Speculative What?

As a final aside, I believe that the science fictionalization of everything may also explain popularity of the term “speculative fiction” among authors who still market books in the sci fi/fantasy genre.  This has never really caught on with the mainstream, I think primarily because speculative just means “theoretical,” which all fiction is by design, and … besides … renaming a genre to resuscitate sales is misguided at best.  Not that I don’t acknowledge their pain.

Traditional sci fi writers must needs feel embattled — they are experiencing increased pressure from the incredible shrinking market for books (as all writers are) and are also having to compete with not only an encroachment of literature on science fiction but with all that shiny, science fictiony, real-world stuff we hear about every day (oooh, iPad).


Kim Stanley Robinson says, “We are living in a science fiction novel we all collaborate on,” and goes into detail in this video:

possible that the idea of “realism” as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic