Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Some Probably Useless Thoughts on Horror

So, I've thought bit more about "horror," why I like it so much, and why the name as a descriptor for fiction makes me nervous. What follows is in no way meant to be taken as my own gospel on the subject. As I have recently been reminded offline, I know better than to make broad generalizations about any genre, specifically one as fractious as this. Furthermore, discussions of this sort are as old as the hills, and nothing is more tedious than someone who claims to have The Answer to a question that has been asked, ad nauseum, for years. So what I offer here is entirely personal.

I believe that horror fiction, at its best, can be the highest order of genre fiction available to us. This is because it seems almost specifically designed to address our own moral and ethical structures. I mentioned this in my post on "S.S." though I didn't go into much detail. Now, horror's focus on moral structure serves to undermine the genre's effectiveness when it serves only to buttress long-standing social structures, which evolved as a tactic to encourage conformity and punish transgression from cultural norms. You know what I'm talking about: promiscuous or adulterous sex is punishable by death, children who don't mind their parents are visited with grotesque punishment, arrogant scientists are persecuted by their own unholy creations. Fiction of this sort works against the genre's strengths by encouraging groupthink, by reinforcing the status quo. It becomes a calcifying force.

I think horror is at its best when it functions as an adversarial literature. To get at what we fear (and what is the essence of horror, if not fear?), the horror writer must be willing to make the reader uncomfortable. Too many writers, I think, settle for the standard tropes -- these can range from vampires and zombies to abandoned mansions and cabins in the wood. While good stories can certainly come from these tropes, their very familiarity works against generating a true sense of horror; I'd argue that they actually breed a sense of comfort. Readers know what they're getting, and no matter how much bloodletting goes along with it, there's very little real horror involved at all.

Having said that, I enjoy the hell out of many, many stories that use these tropes. I might call them dark fantasy before I'd call them horror, but that's a personal thing that really has very little to do with the merits of the story, which is what's most important. The ghost stories of Glen Hirshberg are an excellent example of this. He's using very recognizable genre elements -- ghosts and, sometimes, Halloween -- but he uses them to explore the flaws and sorrows of his characters. I wouldn't call it horror, but who cares? It's wonderful psychological fiction, and often it's very spooky as well. Neil Gaiman's ghost stories -- I'm thinking particularly of "October in the Chair" and "Closing Time" -- are beautifully spooky and sad, and are two of the more memorable genre stories I've read in some time. They're about ghosts, but they're about much else besides. Again, they don't fit my own narrow definition of horror, but it doesn't matter. They're not hampered by their use of convention; on the contrary, those conventions are used to great effect, to make a larger statement about growing up, and abandonment, and about death.

I think the most of the failures associated with the genre come from the novels. And I think this is because the very existence of a horror market encourages some writers to think of themselves exclusively as horror writers, which has the immediate effect of shallowing their pool of ideas. A writer who only writes horror novels will be repeating himself in no time. In my opinion, the best horror stories have come to us from people who do not consider themselves specifically horror writers. I would much sooner trust someone who calls himself a fantasy writer, or even a dark fantasy writer, to produce a good horror story than I would someone who calls himself a horror writer.

I realize my own definition of the word is narrow to the point of being useless when discussing horror -- especially in marketing terms. I make the distinction between horror and dark fantasy, but it has no practical value. It's just a categorical quirk in my brain.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant in North Carolina

Early last week I received an invitation from my friend Dale Bailey, a professor at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, NC (and an excellent writer), to attend last Thursday night's public reading of "Monster" by Kelly Link, this semester's writer-in-residence. I'd met Kelly and her husband Gavin very briefly at the World Fantasy Convention in D.C. a couple of years ago, and I was eager to get a chance to make a more durable connection. More than that, though, I wanted to see Dale again; I'd last seen him at that very same convention, and although we'd emailed sporadically in the meantime, I looked forward to a chance to sit down and talk face to face again.

Dale and I were roommates at Clarion (1992, I think), and hit it off pretty well; although we see each other rarely, it always seems as though very little time has elapsed. We seem not to have to expend any effort reacquainting ourselves with one another, falling into the old comfortable patterns pretty easily. Now that I'm living in North Carolina again, I hope to maintain much more frequent contact with him.

Kelly and Gavin are wonderful people, as you might imagine. If you've read their writing (and if not: who are you? what are you doing here?), you know that it's intelligent, layered, and suffused with good humor. They are much the same way in person. For a writer who has been called "the future of American fiction," Kelly is refreshingly down to earth. Gavin is both affable and witty, though I got the impression his humor can be extremely cutting when he wants it to be. Despite being virtually buried by obligations (from what I could gather, one or both are immediately engaged in: teaching two classes at the college; working on the fantasy overview essay for the nineteenth volume of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror; editing a manuscript for a Small Beer Press collection of Alan DeNiro's short fiction; and keeping up with the regular chores inherent in running both the Small Beer Press and their 'zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet), they spent the afternoon with Dale and me, and hosted the two of us -- along with a few of Dale's students -- for some beer and shoptalk in their apartment after Kelly's reading.

I took two things away from this meeting, both of which I'm going to have to mull over for a bit before I write much about them here. One came from a brief exchange with Kelly. I was orating tediously about my decision to abandon the genre in the mid-nineties, shortly after making my first professional sale ("She Found Heaven" to F&SF). I mentioned that the writing I had done for a while afterward had been mainstream. Kelly asked me if I'd felt that I had to consciously keep the fantasy out of the stories, and without hesitation I said, "Yes." It occurred to me almost immediately afterward that that wasn't true. I had conditioned myself to accept it as truth, which is why the answer came so readily; but it didn't feel right. My hang-ups with genre are long past; but I realized then that I'm kidding myself if I believe that the overtly fantastic is a natural part of my idea process. I have some thoughts on this, which bear directly on the pieces I'm working on now ... but give me another couple of days before I try to write them down.

The other thing came from an exchange with Gavin about horror fiction. Gavin makes no secret his general distaste for horror. When I questioned him about this, he challenged me to come up with examples of good horror writers who do not conform to genre norms (I don't think he doubted their existence; I think he just wanted me to give some solid basis to my viewpoint). I was stunned to find myself at a loss for ready names. I came up with Conrad Williams and Peter Straub then, but I found myself utterly incapable of mounting a credible challenge to his apathy. Now that I've had time to think about it, I could come up with a few more names for him -- Laird Barron is an obvious one, as well as Glen Hirshberg and Michael Marshall Smith -- but precious few. Damnably few, actually. And that recalled to me a long-standing, rather amorphous discomfort I've had with the idea of horror as a genre. One could come up with excellent reasons to exclude most of those names from a straight-up "horror" tag. I've blathered on vaguely about this in the past, to little practical effect, so that's another one to think about for a few days.

So: more to come.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Long GRRM Interview on the Radio

George R.R. Martin is extensively interviewed by the host of CBC Radio Studio One Book Club, out of Vancouver, right here. There are four audio clips, which together add up to about an hour. In addition to reading two passages from A Feast For Crows, Martin discusses weak fantasy writing, the role of morality in his fiction, and the charge that there is too much gratuitous sex in the series (there is also gratuitous feasting, he says, and gratuitous heraldry). It's a fascinating listen.

There are minor spoilers, for those of you not up to date with the books, but nothing too big. If you've resisted reading them for this long, though, you're really doing yourself a disservice. These books have given me the most fun I've had as a reader in my adult life. It's easily some of the best fantasy writing being done in our lifetime.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hoegbotton & Sons Clearance Sale

Jeff VanderMeer, newly anointed judge of the forthcoming World Fantasy Awards, must clear shelf space of dross in order to accommodate all the important new books -- chest-thumping and jaw-wagging -- which will be competing for his favor. We may scrounge for scraps! Head on over to Hoegbotton & Sons, and take advantage!

In all seriousness, there are some great books available, and the prices are impossible to beat. There are a number of unusual or rare editions of Jeff's own work, as well. This is your chance to grab some very rare copies of Stepan Chapman's The Troika, Michael Cisco's original Buzzcity Press printing of The Divinity Student, and Leviathan 2, along with much else.

I see somebody already beat me to the Manly Wade Wellman. Damn you, whoever you are. Damn you to hell!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Race and Star Trek

For those of you out there who don't read all the comments to blog posts, check back to my previous post on race in the genre and give them a look. Pam Noles, Nalo Hopkinson, and Melantrys engage in a pretty interesting debate on how Star Trek's approach to race and -- with a tip of the cap to Hal Duncan -- otherness has evolved over the years.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday's Fun Link #2

I doubt there's enough good stuff out there for me to do this every Friday, but some things are too good not to call your attention to. It's because I care so much about you.


This one was emailed to me by Michael Griffith.