is horror troubled?

Well, of course it is. Horror is all about the forbidden. It’s the decadent, the death-loving, the unspeakable, the taboo.  It’s dark desires and things best left alone (but sometimes irresistible). It’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Horror’s the bad kids in the back of the class, the troublemakers, the ones smoking and loitering and hanging out in the wrong places at the wrong times with the wrong people.

Unfortunately, if we take this troubled schoolkid metaphor a little further, it must be admitted that horror is also the kid who isn’t living up to her potential. Look at your siblings, science fiction and crime, says Stuart Kelly over at the Guardian. They’re doing so well. Why can’t you be more like them?

I didn’t like Kelly’s article, for reasons I’ll get into shortly, but what I did like very much was the post it sparked from Nina Allan (whose horror stories are polished little gems). I couldn’t have said it better myself, really. I’ve often commented that I don’t actually particularly like most horror novels, and I don’t; I just find most formulaic and uninteresting. Although Nina says it’s plagued her in most of the horror novels she’s read recently, it’s not a recent thing. I got fed up for the same reasons way  back in the 1990s when I did my own mad marathon of reading everything in the field I could get my hands on. And if we peek a bit further back, goodness knows, as anyone will tell you, the 1980s were not just the Golden Age of the Profitable Horror Novel but the Golden Age of the God-Awful Horror Novel as well. Oh, the glut of demon children and Indian burial grounds and general savage butchery just seemed never-ending.

(And for me, it really is the novel that’s at issue here; I read plenty of short horror stories I don’t care for but that’s true of any genre, and there is plenty of strong work being done in that medium.)

Unlike Nina, I’ve long ago thrown up my hands and asserted that for horror to work in the long form is the exception, not the rule. Except that her post made me think. And think otherwise. And realize that in saying that I’m really practicing a kind of defensiveness, rejecting horror novels out of hand before they can disappoint me again. I don’t like approaching anything in life that way, and I’m annoyed at myself for not realizing that’s precisely what I was doing in this instance.

It feels really liberating, actually. I get to fall in love with my favorite genre again! There’s lots on her list of not-horror horror novels I haven’t read yet, and I’m going to start working my way through it. For myself, in recent years I have enjoyed some horror novels: Adam Nevill’s The Ritual (which I’ve been planning to write about here, and still will) and Conrad Williams’s London Revenant, for example. I adored Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree  (and in that link I also briefly talk about my own Trouble With Horror) but she doesn’t consider herself to be a horror writer or her work to be horror fiction (as I understand it, because so many people do view “I want to scare you” as being at the core of the genre). I still enjoy Ramsey Campbell’s supernatural novels. I also dug Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black and I lovedlovedloved Sarah Waters’s period ghost story The Little Stranger. And when Graham Joyce strays into horror territory I am never disappointed.

See? That’s really just off the top of my head and that’s not a bad preliminary list. Which leads me to the Guardian article. It feels both polemical and uninformed to me. Indeed, I’d read it and dismissed it altogether till I read Nina Allan’s (far better) response. There appear to be either odd gaps in Kelly’s contemporary (by which I mean post-Lovecraft) knowledge of the field or he simply doesn’t like horror very much; I also think he’s confusing the perception of work with the work actually being done in particular genres. This “literary uplift” he speaks of in crime and science fiction makes me squirm; these are genres in which good, serious work has always been done, not just recently, however recent their increased respectability may be.

I’ve also seen a couple of defensive posts in response around the web. The article really invites defensiveness, but ultimately I think that’s best sidestepped, a distraction to be avoided; in the end, I don’t think there’s anything to be defensive about. Nina says it better than that article does, as does Neil Williamson in a couple of different places on his blog: stop resting on your laurels, horror. You have so much potential. You can be better. Shouldn’t we be striving for that, to always do better? Nina’s not letting anyone off the hook who tries to assert there’s no good work done in the genre–she’s got an ample reading list right there in her post. That’s not the point. I think the best approach with criticism–of any sort–is to always try to get past the initial defensive reaction we all have (it’s okay to vent at first; we’re only human) and ask ourselves is any of this true? Is there anything to take away? Can I learn from this?

For myself, in reading and re-reading all the pieces linked above and thinking more about horror novels than I have in ages and in writing this piece, I actually feel better about the form than I have for a long time. I’m reminded of the horror novel’s potential, of how much it can do, of its roots in mainstream that are among its greatest strengths (and that’s a whole nother post which I just might get around to writing here sometime). It inspires me to want to do even better and to demonstrate the scope and significance and robustness of the horror novel in the book I’m writing myself. I love horror. I want it to be better. I want to be part of showing how it can be better. And I want to show you why it’s worthy of this love.

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