Into this town called Horror, upon an unusually long-legged steed, a saviour did ride. And his arrival was greeted with…
Some time ago I wrote a piece on the possible future on British horror fiction. It was written with a lot of optimism and very little knowledge of how publishing worked – I didn’t even mention eBooks. Here it is: http://www.helium.com/items/1721968-where-will-british-horror-fiction-go-next
Three years later, with short stories in acclaimed anthologies and a well-received debut novel under my belt – not to mention experience in editing with Dark Continents Publishing, Hersham Horror Books and Wicked East Press – I like to think I know a bit more about the industry now, and you know what? That optimism in my original piece hasn’t diminished at all; in fact, I feel more positive about the state of horror fiction than ever before. Partly because I’ve been working with people in America, Canada and the Antipodes, so I can see how Britain’s contribution fits in with the burgeoning global horror scene.
And yet, there are mutterings of the genre being in crisis, and doom-laden blog posts lamenting the current state of horror, which I find baffling. Simon Marshall-Jones, creator of the fine Spectral Press, wrote a blog piece with a very provocative title:
This reminded me of the forward to Stephen Jones’s A Book of Horrors, in which the editor bemoaned the state of horror fiction today.
No-one will deny there’s a glut of zombie apocalypse novels on the market, and I don’t need to go into the topic on the watering-down of the vampire legend in Stephanie Myers’s Twilight books. But is this really a crisis? Is it really harming the horror genre? There are some superb writers in the business, and new talent finally cracking the mainstream: in this country, it’s a delight to see Adam Nevill’s books available to buy in every supermarket (previously unthinkable for horror novels), and to see Alison Littlewood’s debut novel “A Cold Season” championed by Richard and Judy’s book club. It’s proof, to me, that quality horror fiction is doing extremely well, particularly in the UK. So, why the despair?
Perhaps this concern goes hand in hand with the digital self-publishing boom, and the glut of poorly written/badly edited books thrown up on Kindle, Nook and Smashwords. I won’t go in to this topic here, suffice to say there are signs of a correction coming which is putting the slowdown on the Amazon Gold Rush, as readers and reviewers are getting wise to the game.
Still, there seems to be reluctance in the UK to embrace eBooks the way our American cousins have done, and chapbooks are making a comeback; the British horror industry is still firmly in love with pen and ink. Personally, I have no preference; digital or paper is fine for me, but I am surprised that many small presses will only release their works in paper and avoid digital completely. To connect with a global readership, digital is a fantastic option, and to avoid it risks missing the potential for new readers.
And that’s really what this piece is all about: new readers. While I appreciate Simon’s concern that originality and storytelling appear to be sacrificed in favour of reliance on the tried and tested tropes, the simple fact is this: the vampire-lite and zombie apocalypse stories sell, and they sell in big numbers. Why?
Because there are markets for these tales. There are readers out there who can’t get enough, and if publishers refuse to satisfy this demand – or even recognise the market exists – the fans will look to publishers who will. It’s no good berating readers for not “reading the right horror books”, and choosing works that some feel cheapen the genre. Not everyone wants high literature in a horror novel, but neither do they want to be made to feel inferior for not choosing those titles. And who is to say that readers can’t enjoy both literary horror and pulp fiction? Why is there this desire to separate fans into subgenres, to ghettoise those who love pulp horror or paranormal romance?
I’m a child of the 1970s; my introduction to horror fiction came with the Golden Age of pulp horror. James Herbert and Guy N Smith were my idols when I was at primary school; then came Graham Masterton, Dean Koontz, F Paul Wilson, Clive Barker and Steve Harris. I came to the classic writers (Lovecraft and James) much later.
What was it that appealed to me when I was younger? The big monsters, blood, guts and gore: stuff that appeals to most young boys of that age! And of course, it’s stuff you’re expected to grow out of…
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of those who didn’t grow out of it. But you also realised that monsters, ghosts, guts & gore was only the start of your journey into horror, and the delights it holds. You also got tired of people slagging the genre off and tried to get the non-believers to understand the appeals and treasures of your favourite books and writers. My mother, who watched with great concern my devouring of horror books, became a huge fan of Graham Masterton, Dean Koontz and F Paul Wilson when I said “Try this. It’ll surprise you!” and now understands why the genre holds such appeal.
Storytelling. Characterisation. And, particularly in the case of my favourite writers – Masterton, Wilson and Harris – humour and thrills. In short, entertainment.
What? Humour? Thrills? That’s not what horror fiction is about! It should be about preparing for death, a metaphor for our fears and anxieties, etc. It should explore new territories in the human psyche; it should eschew any form of humour, and it should not entertain the reader…
Should? Why is there this demand for what horror should be? Is it because some of the snobs in the genre are anxious to distance themselves from the “baser” elements of horror? “It’s okay, I know I enjoyed reading books about giant crabs and mutant slugs eating people, but I read proper horror now. Because I’m grown up. In fact, I never enjoyed those pulp horror books at all. Ugh! Not for me, and I pity those who did read them! They’d have you believe they started reading Ramsey Campbell and MR James when they were still in nappies.
This idea that literary horror is the only horror fiction worth bothering with is what is damaging the genre, not the flood of zombie and vampire-lite novels, because it’s creating divisions in a genre that is growing in strength and popularity within the mainstream.
And it’s a snobbery that seems more prevalent in the UK. Working with American writers and publishers – and attending the WHC in Austin last year – I realised the US horror industry is more receptive to the subgenres that are so sneered at here; zombie apocalypse stories are an industry in their own right. I don’t see this divide in other genres: there’s still a glut of Da Vinci Code knock-offs that appear on supermarket and bookstore shelves every week, but you don’t hear the fans of Gerald Seymour and Robert Harris complaining that the thriller genre is cheapened or threatened by the likes of Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler.
Another complaint I hear is about “literary mash-ups”, and how they cheapen the genre. Why? Because they dare to use humour. Come on: they don’t cheapen the genre; they strengthen it, because they attract new readers. Jane Austen fans may now be reading horror for the first time after enjoying Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter sounds a laugh and is on my TBR pile because it mixes comedy with historical fiction and horror. What’s not to love? Mash-ups have the potential to expand the horror readership. Yes, publishers have cottoned on to their appeal and are flooding the market; but that’s what publishers do, and will always do, regardless of genre.
I hope to see more horror comedies and spoofs in the future, like the one I’m reading now: Rhys Hughes has released a book entitled The Grin of the Doll Who Ate His Mother’s Face in the Dark, purportedly written by Lamblake Heinz, a not-very-subtle reference to Ramsey Campbell. This has angered many in theUK horror community, as it’s seen to be a direct insult to Ramsey Campbell – generally regarded as the world’s greatest living horror writer – and his writing.
I’ve read it, and can confirm it’s not a spoof of Ramsey’s writing, but a general piss-take of “classical” horror-writing in general, in particular the bleakness that is deemed essential to the modern horror establishment. Think of it as a highbrow Garth Marenghi: it’s hilarious, and not to be taken seriously. It’s neither big nor clever, but it’s not a personal attack on Mr Campbell. I suspect Rhys chose the Ramsey Campbell reference as Mr Campbell is generally regarded as the world’s finest living horror writer, and held to be the ultimate example of how a horror writer should write…
Ah, there’s that word should again. I’ll be reviewing the book soon: in the meantime, I should get back to the blog post…
Tastes change as you get older; you get more sophisticated with your reading habits. But that doesn’t mean that you should turn your nose up at the works within the genre that give entertainment and enjoyment to so many others. Someone who’s enjoying a zombie apocalypse novel may, in a few years time think: “I’m bored of this type of story. What else is out there?”
That’s when they discover new writers, new types of horror story. That’s how it worked for me: there was a glut of Night of the Crabs and The Rats rip-offs, as publishers flooded the market in the early ‘80s. Like many others of my generation, I got bored with all the animals-on-the-rampage stuff and looked around the shelves. That’s how I found my first Graham Masterton book, The Devils of D-Day and F Paul Wilson’s The Keep: two novels that have greatly influenced my own writing, the latter in particular, which also generated my next literary love: historical fiction.
It’s highly unlikely I would have come across those books if I hadn’t been such a fan of pulpy, monster-related horror. And who knows? Maybe the next generation of horror fans are kids who’ve come to the end of the current Stephanie Myers books and think: “Hmm. What other kinds of vampire stories are out there?”
Maybe they’ll see what else is out there on the shelves of their local bookstore or the digital supermarkets; maybe they won’t, and will move on to straight romance or thrillers. But if they continue to be mocked by hard-core horror fans who look down at them for their choice of literature – just as we’ve been looked down upon by non-horror fans – there’s little chance of them being tempted to try other sub-genres.
There’s room for all. Horror fiction has always been viewed with suspicion and distaste by those who don’t “get” it, and it always will be; that’s why it feels like the genre is under attack. But there are enough fans and friends of the genre – in all its forms – to keep it alive and thriving. That’s not going to happen if we’re at each others’ throats or dictating what horror fiction should be about.
Out of this town called Horror, the “saviour” did run, away from the outlaw vampires and zombies. They’d cut off and discarded the legs of his steed, so he ran away in terror…
The inhabitants of this town called Horror looked at each other in bafflement. Had their message been misunderstood? All they wanted was to be friends…but not with the high horse.