The Pathos of Genre

THE PATHOS OF GENRE
by Douglas E. Winter

Based on a speech delivered to the
Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Banquet
June 6, 1998

Not long ago, a likeable, intelligent editor for one of the major New York publishers asked me to read the manuscript of a first novel she was publishing. She hoped that I would offer some suitable words of wisdom for the book’s cover — a “blurb.” I agreed to read the novel, whose title and premise were enticing, but I withheld any promise to deliver a quotable quote. When I turned to the manuscript a few weeks later, I was mesmerized, caught up in an intense and certifiably weird masterpiece.

I wrote to the editor and offered a lengthy and enthusiastic paragraph, reporting that this was no ordinary book, but probably the most original and unnerving first novel that I had read in years. In concluding, I noted that here, at last, was what readers had been waiting for: A new horror for the nineties.

I soon received a gracious call from the editor, thanking me for taking the time to help her with marketing that most problematic of commodities, a first novel; but then came a curious request. She wanted to use my impassioned remarks on the back cover of the book, but she wondered: Would I mind if she edited them slightly? Would I agree to eliminate . . . one word? The word, of course, was horror.

When Jack Williamson and William Peter Blatty — the men honored at the 1998 HWA banquet for their lifetimes of achievement – sat down to create their masterworks, the word “horror” did not describe a kind of book. But since the early 1980s, we have been besieged by this word. Horror. For better — and, more often, for worse — “horror” has come not only to define, but also to dictate, a kind of fiction. The writer whose bestselling novels brought new credence to the literature of fear was labeled the “King of Horror.” Publishers eagerly branded their products as “horror” through cover copy and publicity; some went so far as to use the word as an imprint. Magazines proclaimed their devotion to it. Entire shelves and sections in bookstores and libraries wore the name.

A World Horror Convention was born. Writers gathered, like lost sheep, into a Horror Writers Association.

The word, the word: The horror, the horror.

In this sudden quest for identity, for a way of labeling whatever impulse had given readers and filmgoers the particular appetite for chaos that marked the fading 1970s, the coming 1990s, the moment was what mattered: for writers, notoriety and income; for booksellers and publishers, sales. Few considered the long-term consequences, and those who raised their voices were ignored, shouted down. We witnessed, in the name of “horror,” a curious entropic journey in which readers, writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers ventured into a seemingly limitless frontier, but soon circled the wagons, claiming a known and seemingly solid ground, around which signifying fences — brand name writers, book cover art, even book titles, icons, styles — were erected to define, describe . . . and confine. Horror. The Horror.

A fiction whose fundamental impulse was the unsafe – the breaching of the taboo, the creation of physical and metaphysical unease — was being made safe for mass consumption. Soon a “horror” existed that was as recognizable as science fiction, the western or the romance — and thus as capable of reproduction, marginalization, and, indeed, denigration.

And why? Because a fiction whose hallmark was the unexpected had become, as a genre, a fiction of the expected.

Genre is the bastard child of expectation . . . anticipation.

We love anticipation. Waiting and hoping, wondering with the eyes and heart of a child . . . the promise of spring, the summer crop of film releases, the fall list of books dark and dangerous, and then the stuff of Christmas. The best is yet to come, we are told; it is yet to come. But all too often what comes is disappointment, particularly in popular entertainment, where the prospect of a new work by a favorite writer or filmmaker now rarely can be matched by the work itself. In the postmodern era of information overload, where we have entertainment news, and even entertainment about entertainment, each coming attraction is previewed and reviewed to the extent that we often know so much about a book or film or video that, when we finally have the chance to experience it, there is little room for surprise or wonder. We are told what we will enjoy or dislike, deny or denounce, what we should buy, what we should rent, what we should boycott, what we should ignore.

Deprived of the need to exercise our own imaginations, we sit in mindless confirmation of the judgment of others . . . or we become serial readers and viewers, eagerly consuming each new work by our admired, without discretion, just as we eat without thinking at any and every McDonald’s, knowing that the burgers and fries, although by no means particularly tasteful or wholesome, will be pretty much the same wherever we eat them. Hence we find ourselves surrounded by artists and entertainers who are nothing more than manufacturers, whose redeeming virtue is not so much quality as quality control – the ability to deliver not necessarily great, not even necessarily good, but simply consistent product year after year after year.

Little wonder that Stephen King, victimized by the ever-encroaching fences of his success, would write a compelling triptych — Misery, The Dark Half, and “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (in Four Past Midnight ) – about bestselling writers haunted by their literary pasts; and then, as a coda, destroy his trademark setting, the town of Castle Rock, in Needful Things.

Little wonder that Peter Straub, in the wake of his bestselling Floating Dragon, would bravely turn away from the structure and content that was expected of him, and reinvent his art in the likes of Koko — and, to my mind, the first great horror novel of this decade, The Throat.

The eternal debate about what constitutes “horror” – and what it should be called — proceeds from the misguided belief that a definition has significance to anyone but the middleman. A category is important to publishers and their distribution network, particularly the publishers whose reputations and finances depend upon placing a kind of product on the shelf; but consider the plight of these selfsame publishers who, after pushing a product called “horror” — often with little regard for its quality, slowly but surely eroding the audience of interested readers — find that this product does not sell.

But we cannot blame the publishers. At least, not most of them. The bubble known as “horror” burst at the same time that mergermania gripped the publishing industry and that mass market book distribution suffered a nervous breakdown. And let’s be fair: Many publishers have stood by the literature of horror, out of love for the fiction or its writers; but more important, because they know what I know: Horror sells. It sells.

Indeed, at times — like in the 1980s — it sells too well. It sells so well that almost anyone thinks they can write it.

And it is the writers of horror fiction who must accept the blame, because it is ours. Believe me, it is ours. We have failed to provide publishers with fiction of a quality — and more specifically, an originality — that could sustain reader interest, and thus sales.

We have failed in our essential mission of educating publishers, and thus readers, about our art. About horror.

We have allowed ourselves to become typecast as writers of a kind of fiction, by agreeing to the notion that horror is a marketing category – and a genre.

When, in the late 1980s, the name “horror” began to lose its already suspect veneer, the inevitable next step was to find a mask, some more palatable description. When the name proves a hindrance, then, as my editor friend suggested, the simple solution, some believed, was to change it. In the home audio and kitchen appliance industries, this tactic is known as “bait and switch.”

Some writers, principally those made nervous by the word “horror” and its adolescent and visceral connotations, opted for the gentler sound of “dark fantasy.” Others flirted briefly with something known as the “new horror,” and a repeated catchword was “cutting edge,” which underscored, rather dramatically, the reality that the blade of horror had indeed dulled.

Perhaps the most honest of the alternative names is “dark suspense” or “dark fiction” — horror indeed, but without the pejorative use of its name. A literature of “dark suspense” is nothing new, given the likes of Jim Thompson and David Goodis, but the lines have blurred; where once Thompson may have been classified as a crime writer, now he has stepped beyond that category and into the mainstream – and because, I should note, a fundamental impulse of his fiction was the horrific.

The penumbra of “dark suspense” seems also to embrace “terror,” which once described psychological horror as made famous by Robert Bloch. One of its spiritual successors was V.C. Andrews, a critically maligned but immensely popular novelist whose dysfunctional family sagas were resonant with autobiography. Virginia Andrews invited me to her home in 1985 for what sadly proved to be her last interview. She told me about the novels she wanted to write, and some that she had written — a children’s book, a fantasy, a science fiction novel. When she died the following year, her estate commissioned a series of novels ghost-written “in her tradition” while ignoring the unfinished manuscripts she left behind, which diverged from her publisher’s expectations. There is no better paradigm for the pathos of genre: even in death, Virginia Andrews cannot escape its clutches.

As the name game was being played out, the once-expansive, now defined, landscape of horror was being divided up – Balkanized, if you will — as writers and their publishers sought to find cliques, movements, subgenres, some palpable (and, of course, marketable) means of distinguishing “us” from “them.”

Notable among the subsets was the suddenly commercial category of vampire fiction. It is an unsettling truth, but in recent years an audience has emerged – one of considerable size — that is capable of experiencing the literature of horror (if not literature itself) only through a type of character: The vampire.

There’s a framed letter in my office, written exactly one hundred years ago on the stationery of the Lyceum Theatre. My brother, a historian and writer, found the letter in St. Louis, among a trove of documents concerning the American Civil War, where surely it had been misplaced.

The letter was written by Bram Stoker, and his scurrying pen queries his literary agent, Colles, about — what else? — money, and his publisher’s terms for his new novel, the novel being prepared in the wake of Dracula.

Beyond its confirmation that the writing life hasn’t much changed, the letter is an artifact of painful irony. Who remembers the novel that Stoker was writing in 1899? It was The Mystery of the Sea (1902), which Conan Doyle found “admirable” but which, along with so much else that Stoker wrote, is long out of print. And who does not doubt that, if Stoker were alive today, his publisher, and possibly his agent, would be encouraging, if not demanding, that Stoker write something else: A sequel to Dracula.

The vampire was not Stoker’s creation, but Dracula has proved such convincing propaganda for “The Un-Dead” (to indulge Stoker’s original title) that it has found immortality in repetition and imitation while its author, and most of what he wrote, has been drained to a marginal memory. Even the 1995 motion picture Bram Stoker’s Dracula was marketed by a novelization — another sad sign of the pathos of genre.

Consider, too, the writing career that is staked on writing vampire novels. In a market gone batty, with endless titles sucking blood — and thus life — from the market, a disgruntled vampire writer told me recently that she was writing a “completely different kind of book.” Oh, really? Yes . . . a werewolf novel.

That’s not writing horror fiction.

That’s repeating horror fiction.

But you say: Anne Rice did it, Doug.

And yes, she did, but . . . that’s Anne Rice. And you are you. Think for a moment about the cadre of the bestselling horror writers of our time – Rice, King, Straub, Clive Barker, Thomas Harris . . . What do they have in common? The fact that they each write different kinds of books.

When a handful of younger writers, encouraged by Barker’s bloody surge to fame, took the name “splatterpunks,” they found both notoriety and derision as a trend — a “movement.” While the original writers of “splatterpunk” worked from principle or jesterdom, their heirs, ever eager to distinguish themselves, worked only from a kind of delusional hope that the “shocking” would get them noticed. A subgenre of violent horror resulted, but its appeal was limited, of course, to a smaller audience — a subset — of readers.

So . . . what followed splatter? After explicit violence, why not explicit sex? Erotic horror. The erotic thriller. Sex, sex and more sex. And then, of course, violent sex. As Clive Barker’s villainous Mamoulian observes in The Damnation Game: “It wasn’t difficult to smudge sexuality into violence, turns sighs into screams, thrusts into convulsions. The grammar was the same; only the punctuation differed.” Hence the semi-professional “sexpunks” whose obsession with genitalia is rivaled only by that of twelve-year-old boys.

The latter crew, in particular, represents the lunatic child of inbreeding: Genre begetting subgenre begetting sub-subgenre until, sooner or later, its writers are not communicating to anyone but an initiated few. I could offer you further analysis, but in the end, I think that Johnny Rotten said it best: “This is what you want, this is what you get. This is what you want, this is what you get.”

A more recent incarnation of horror is the “new gothic” — which, like splatterpunk, seeks by name and aesthetic stance to distinguish its peculiar wheat from genre chaff. Where the splatpack’s selling point was an insistent dialogue about (and in too many cases, pandering to) sex and violence, the new gothic is a more clever and constructive proposition, invoking, of all things, horror’s literary tradition in order to set itself apart from generic perdition. Although the darling of academics, mainstream critics and dilettantes who prefer their fear dolloped out in fluted crystal (rather than, say, in splatterpunk’s barfbags), the new gothic is a curious self-exile to a land of literary make-believe. Because its manifesto — that horror will always survive and prosper as literature — is a foregone conclusion, the implicit conceit is revealed: By whose authority do these writers represent the literature of our time?

This is not to say that writers of the “new gothic” lack talent; it is abundant, for example, in the work of Patrick McGrath and, of course, Joyce Carol Oates. Oates, by the way, readily embraces the term “horror,” although she favors “the grotesque” in describing her own fiction; but that term doesn’t lend itself well to jacket copy or writers’ associations.

The “new gothic” is a variant of the “old school” perspective of academia, whose proponents, like literary Luddites, eschew the modern (and especially the popular) and hold that horror’s glory days lurk in the “weird fiction” of its past. Acolytes of weird fiction rely on the company of M.R. James and the Bensons for legitimacy, but tend to obsess about that dour and dear gentleman from Providence, H. P. Lovecraft.

For some time, the “weird fiction” clique embraced Ramsey Campbell as its contemporary savior, based upon his Lovecraftian roots and layered, at times baroque, narrative style. One wonders what these folks make of Campbell’s recent novels. . . . A more likely rallying point for connoisseurs of the “weird” is Thomas Ligotti, whose Noctuary includes this wonderful opening sentence: “No one needs to be told about what is weird.”

And that, my friends, brings us full circle. Because it’s true: No one needs to be told about what is weird . . . Names, movements, subgenres – letting ourselves or our publishers decide what is horror – is a siege mentality, a refusal to look outside the nonexistent boundaries, those ridiculous fences, that have haunted the horror fiction of the past decade. A publisher can, in the short term, use different names just like it uses different marketing strategies to sell its product. But let’s be honest with ourselves. You can call something deceased, expired, gone to meet its maker. You can say that, like Elvis, it’s left the building. But in the end, folks, it’s dead.

And horror is dead.

The “death of horror” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once given life, a category fiction of “horror” was doomed to die – consigned to the purgatory of specialty stores and specialty shelves where its fate is that of the romance or the western: To function as a certain kind of fiction for a certain kind of audience. The phone call from my editor friend was not unexpected: At last the implied had become explicit. Horror has reached, it would seem, the exalted stature of a Babylon 5 novel, trapped in a virtually inescapable ghetto of its own making.

So: Horror is dead. You’ve heard that rumored, argued, and just plain said with increased persistence over the past few years – and over this weekend. And that’s true: Horror, as defined as a publishing category in the 1980s, is dead. It’s gone. Forever. And you’d better get used to it.

But the winner is . . . horror.

Because the fiction of horror, like its favorite creatures of the night, does not perish so easily. The doomsayers forget its persistence, its uncanny ability to mutate and survive, which ought to serve as the most powerful clue that this fiction is not easily consigned to a category – it exists, thrives, lingers, and occasionally triumphs because, unlike any other supposed kind of fiction, horror invokes an emotion.

I’ve said that before, and unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to say it again. And again. But horror, my friends, is not a genre. It is a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times.

Do you need proof? Just when so-called horror fiction seemed to find its nadir late in the eighties, along came a novel by a gentleman named Thomas Harris. Although published as a crime novel, to be sure, no one can gainsay that The Silence of the Lambs was a horror novel. Or that its progeny have sold, and sold well, over the past decade.

What we are witnessing, then, is not the “death of horror,” but the death of a shortlived marketing construct that, although it wore the name of “horror,” represented but a sideshow in the history of the literature. Horror will never escape us — indeed, our literary history is proof positive that fear is the only constant of storytelling. Great horror fiction is being published today; sometimes it wears other names, other faces, marking the fragmentation and meltdown of a sudden and ill-conceived thing that many publishers and writers foolishly believed could be called a genre. Probably the most welcome result is the departure of the bottom-feeders and lemmings, who will move along to writing the flavor of the new decade and allow the conscientious writers of the horrific to flourish.

In closing, I want to echo some of the thoughts from my afterword to Revelations, a book in which I sought to showcase the many facets of this immortal fiction.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, the Western literature of horror and the supernatural experienced a profound change. In the space of little more than a decade, an astonishing number of seminal works of horror were published, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894); H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and War of the Worlds (1897-98); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898); Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901); W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902); and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902).

The year 1900 marked the transition of this literature from the gothic to the iconic. With the new century, and the advent of visual media (motion pictures and, later, comic books and television), the personification of horror in a visual construct — the creature — became paramount. The aesthetics of seeing have dominated our popular culture ever since, spawning the “monster movies” of the fifties and the blood splattered special effects films of the eighties and nineties, in which optical illusion took primacy over plot — and, in the worst cases, the only human role was that of victim.

A deft morality play for television, Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, warned of the dangers of seeking the monstrous in skin other than our own. Just as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) signaled the certain sunset of the gothic by critiquing its preoccupation with the external, Serling’s simple scenario, in which everyday people hasten with McCarthyite fervor to condemn each other as monsters, underscored the fragile reign of the creature. Horror, these writers from different centuries remind us, is not the safe pretense of twisted houses or twisted bodies – or even twisted minds. It is that which cannot be made safe – evolving, ever-changing – because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience while in its thrall.

Now that we have seen the monsters – now that they have arrived on Maple Street – we have learned that certain truth: They are us. Although we will no doubt endure, and occasionally enjoy, their reign for years to come, the success of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine in mediating the imagery of monsters to young readers suggests that, as the Bible reminds us, there comes a time to put away childish things.

As creators and consumers of horror, we find ourselves at a turning point not unlike that faced by the dreamers and devotees who confronted the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the correlation is fortuitous, the product of social and technological forces that have no concern for calendars. But I insist that there is one certainty. It is time to move on: to another horror, one that, like each new day, has unlimited possibilities.

Think of our mission like that of the demolition experts who bring down old and rotten buildings. Do you know what they call their craft? They call it making sky.

If you believe in horror, then join me, in the name of horror . . . let’s go make some sky.

Copyright (c) 1998, 1999 by Douglas E. Winter

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One Response to “The Pathos of Genre”

  1. […] what this post is really about is The Occult Detective’s 7.14.14 post “The Pathos Of Genre” (https://authorbobfreeman.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/the-pathos-of-genre/), an essay by author Douglas E. Winter, based on a speech he delivered to the Horror Writers […]

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