HORROR AND TERROR, SLASHERS AND STUMPS
Part One of a Four-Part Conversation About Horror Fiction With Christopher Conlon, Lisa Morton, Kurt Newton, and Norman Prentiss
CONLON: A friend recently said something to me that I thought might be a good starting place for this discussion. He told me that in his opinion, horror is “the kind of writing done by people who aren’t smart enough to write science fiction and not clever enough to write mysteries.” As insulting as it is, I thought it was a striking thing to say. Norman, what do you think of this characterization of the genre?
PRENTISS: I’ll address the social aspect of this comment first. For some reason, people think it’s perfectly okay to insult horror stories, and by association, horror authors—not necessarily the “you must be sick in the head to write that kind of stuff” comment, which they’d never say to your face, but more along the lines of “oh, that kind of thing isn’t very good and doesn’t interest me, so it shouldn’t interest you either.”
One summer I was wearing a T-shirt from the latest World Horror Convention, with text/design on the back. A guy about my age walked too close behind me; I kept thinking he’d finally pass, but instead he said: “World Horror Convention? I guess you can have a convention for anything these days!” I looked back and he smiled, like I was supposed to think the comment was clever or even friendly. I wanted to say, “Tell me something you care about, please. Maybe something you give up weekends and evenings for: breeding dogs, watching sports, collecting coins, whatever...Would it be okay if I mocked that, implying it’s a stupid waste of time?”
As far as the blanket dismissal of horror writing as unintelligent or uninteresting…Certainly there’s stuff in the genre—in any genre—that would fit that description. But my favorite moments in most books or stories tend to be the darker elements. Maybe that’s why I write horror: nothing to do with my ability or intelligence, but more to do with my interests and sensibilities.
MORTON: Well, Chris, at the risk of sounding like I’m being very patronizing to your friend (and considering how patronizing their comment was, I don’t exactly feel real bad about that)—my first response would be to state that I pity anyone who thinks writing must simply be about being clever or smart. Whatever happened to making the reader feel something? It does sometimes seem to me that the more jaded our society becomes, the more it looks down on anything that actually makes an individual experience an honest-to-god genuine emotion. Comedies, melodramas, and horror are all derided, because, hey—we hipsters are above all that nasty emotion. Give us something cool and calculating, give us thrillers or Bret Easton Ellis or the endless upper-middle-class (mild) angst of so-called literary fiction.
And for god’s sake, if you’re simply bound and determined to make us feel something…don’t make us afraid. Because if we fear, then we are forced to look at our cocoons and realize they aren’t so safe after all, and we don’t want to go there. Science fiction reaffirms our technical savvy, and mysteries tell us that we’re clever enough to solve even the direst of crimes, so both of those genres play to our happy little egos. But horror tells us we’re not safe, and technology won’t save us, and we’re not as smart as we think we are, and we just really, really do not want to go there. So instead we’ll sit back and tell you the horror genre is meaningless and silly…and hope you won’t catch on that we’re actually doing anything we can to avoid facing our fears.
NEWTON: For one thing, I don’t think horror writers choose to be horror writers; it’s just the kind of writing that interests them. But your friend touches on an interesting phenomenon that occurs in the genre. Ray Bradbury gained notoriety as a horror writer before moving into science fiction (and mystery). John Shirley wrote several “horror” novels before leaning more toward science fiction. Kathe Koja created some amazing work in the horror genre before moving into young adult. And Poppy Brite is another example of a Now You See Them, Now You Don't horror writer.
So, using these examples, one can deduce one of two things: either horror isn’t as lucrative as some of the other genres; or horror, as a source for new ideas, is limited and writers simply mine it for all it’s worth and then...move on.
The not “smart enough” to write science fiction and the not “clever enough” to write mysteries speaks to the perceived ghetto that is horror. But it depends on your definition of horror, doesn’t it? Some might perceive horror as confined to a supernatural event such as a haunting, the awakening of an ancient evil, or some other malevolent force intent on doing harm. Others might perceive horror in terms of a horrific event. And still others find their horror in very real, very human terms. For me, Melville’s Moby Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are horror stories. To Kill A Mockingbird, A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies—all frighten in their own way with disturbing social commentary. So, for me, my horror is seldom found inside a paperback with funhouse lettering and blood red foil on the cover.
But, getting back to the ghetto...to be honest, a good horror novel doesn’t need to be either smart or clever to succeed. Most horror enthusiasts aren’t looking for a treatise on what it is to be afraid, or a metaphorical representation of fear. There are several things one can expect out of the average horror story. 1) Something bad is going to happen. 2) Somebody’s going to be assaulted—either physically or psychologically. 3) That somebody is going to have to deal with whatever it is that's assaulting them. Comparing horror to science fiction or mystery is apples and oranges; horror simply operates on a different playing field than the other genres.
CONLON: I agree with you on that, Kurt, though I don’t see the point of trying to yank literary classics into some sort of “horror” definition simply because they may have some disturbing content. I’ve seen this before from horror writers. But to me, if it doesn’t derive in some way, directly or indirectly, from Gothic traditions and tropes, then it isn’t horror. I mean, what is the point of calling The Old Man and the Sea a horror novel? What’s gained by it? If anything that has any disturbing material in it at all is “horror,” then, well, pretty much everything in the canon of world literature is “horror” except, I suppose, comedic novels. I mean, the point can quickly get silly. Is Pride and Prejudice—without its recently added zombies, that is—a horror novel? That Mr. Darcy is pretty disturbing, right? I just don’t follow the logic of the argument.
NEWTON: “For me, Melville’s Moby Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are horror stories.” That’s all I’m saying. For me. My taste. You don’t think there’s a supernatural element to Moby Dick? You don’t see the cosmic indifference in The Old Man and the Sea? How about the Bible? Full of horror stories. To me. These are the kinds of works I draw inspiration from. Not The Exorcist. Not Dracula or Frankenstein or The Haunting of Hill House.
CONLON: I don’t deny the disturbing content of those works, Kurt, I’m only saying that disturbing content alone doesn’t make something a horror novel—I’ll add, “to me.” The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Haunting of Hill House all are horror novels because they derive from the traditions of the Gothic in literature. The Old Man and the Sea simply doesn’t. Cosmic indifference doesn’t, in itself, make something horror. The idea was central for Lovecraft, yes, but he used it in conjunction with all sorts of other Gothic machinery in his stories. They are horror.
NEWTON: I think your definition of horror might be a bit too narrowly defined, while mine might be a bit too broad. Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children could be classified as Southern Gothic, but, while it approaches the literary dark, for me it isn’t a horror novel. And I’ve read it twice! So, based on these revelations, I would have to say I’m a dark fiction writer/reader. Unfortunately, when I go to the local bookstore, there isn’t a shelf that says Dark Fiction. So I tend to go fishing...so to speak.
CONLON: Well, all of us here are known more-or-less as horror writers, I guess. I don’t consider myself one at all, actually—I’m very interested in the Gothic tradition in literature, but I’m hardly interested at all in what’s published today as “horror.” How about you all? Do you consider yourself horror writers?
MORTON: Yes, I do...and proudly so, in fact. I think horror writers are in many respects psychiatrists for their cultures—we hold up the fears, demand that everyone look at them and acknowledge them, and some will leave that experience better for it. The end result of experiencing well-done horror fiction can be growth, catharsis, or even great joy. I know certain experiences with horror in my life had a significant impact on me; I remember, for example, being very young and reading a ghost story (“Shottle Bop” by Theodore Sturgeon), and I was alone in the house and the sun was setting and I got really scared—but when my mom got home, I’d never been so happy to see her and it was a wonderful feeling. In the last few years, one book that I found deeply disturbing and moving was John R. Little’s Miranda, and when I gave the book to my partner Ricky, he was equally affected, and we talked about it and it gave us an experience that we shared together. I find that other forms of literature seldom provide these sorts of jolts out of the mundane, and of course one of the things that good horror fiction does is strive to create something intense. I think it’s quite an honorable tradition.
Now, to really dissect part of that question, Chris—I note you referred to “what’s published today as ‘horror,’” and here’s where I’m going to get nasty: I don’t consider a lot of contemporary so-called horror fiction to be horror at all. Sometime after the ’80s, after the splatterpunks introduced the notion of “extreme” horror and slasher movies pushed gore ever further, it became fashionable to market certain works as “pushing the envelope” simply because of the amount of gore and sex that were offered up. A lot of this work—which I’ve come to call the “fuck the stumps” school of writing—does virtually nothing to create real suspense or tension, instead attempting merely to revolt or disgust. Put another way: They’ve traded in an emotional response for a purely physical one. They want to make you nauseous, not frightened. And to me that makes them pornography, since pornography aims to elicit a physical response. And I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with pornography—see Alan Moore’s Lost Girls for an example of how pornography can indeed become astounding art—but these books just aren’t horror.
In some respects I suppose I like the old notion that some of the Gothic writers espoused: That they strove to evoke “terror,” and considered “horror” vulgar. Maybe “fuck the stumps” books really are horror, and terror is what interests me. So, the roundabout answer, Chris, is: Please call me a terror writer!
CONLON: Richard Matheson makes that same distinction between horror and terror, yes. Kurt, what about you?
NEWTON: I’m a horror writer, a fantasy writer, a science fiction writer, a writer of slipstream, magic realism, even mainstream. However, my themes (themes of loss, and despair, and the struggle with self-destructive tendencies) tend to plant me mostly in the horror genre. Horror is like my first friend. We have a lot in common. We get along. We go way back. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made other friends along the way. Learned new things. Experimented. So, for lack of a better definition, a horror writer I am.
PRENTISS: I’ll admit to horror, and am fascinated by the same themes you mention, Kurt: loss, despair, self-destruction. I’d also add the fear that life isn’t as clear-cut and easy to understand as we’d like to think. There’s this line in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure: “Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought.” The realization that life doesn’t necessarily make any sense—what better genre is there than horror to depict such agonizing disillusionment? In its many forms, horror literature dramatizes the unknowable; it literalizes the essential strangeness of the world. To me, that’s an inexhaustible, admirable subject.
And Lisa, I’m not the best guy to defend the splatterpunk and extreme horror folk, but I’ll try. As I recall, the “extreme” label was at least initially intended to refer not (or at least not only) to extreme sex and gore, but to the extreme psychological reactions those elements could produce in characters and in the reader. Revolt and disgust are psychological reactions as much as they are physical, and they can be quite effective…(and here’s where I expect we're in agreement) in moderation. Too much extreme content, and a story can fall from the heights of horror/terror into low comedy. But hell, a lot of that comedy is intentional, and if the right reader’s in the right mood, it can be darkly amusing.
MORTON: So why aren’t you a horror writer, Chris?
CONLON: Well, I think Kurt’s earlier insistence on what horror is to him maybe applies here. A lot of people do seem to see my stories as horror—I guess they’d have to be asked why. The supernatural appears in my work occasionally, but rarely is it particularly scary. I use the supernatural as a metaphorical way to get at my characters’ inner psychological states, not to try to frighten the reader—I never think about the reader, actually. Now, I realize that people will say that lots of great horror writers have used the supernatural for exactly the reason I just stated. That’s okay. If others want to call me a horror writer, I don’t mind. Yet I’ve written books about the silent movie days of Hollywood, the biggest slave auction in American history, and the Lincoln assassination, too. To me, I’m simply a writer.
For Part Two of this discussion, please visit Kurt Newton’s blog at http://kurtnewton.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/horror-and-terror-slashers-and-stumps-part-two/