Oh, The Horror!

Don’t know if I mentioned this or not, but I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about contemporary horror. The following is an attempt to work out why, and – being a rummage around inside my brain – may well be doomed to being malformed and half-baked. So, apologies in advance.

I think it started around about the time of last year’s Fcon. You know, the whole thing with the awards and then the painful restructuring that the BFS went through in coming to terms with the realisation that real changes were required if that F were not to be replaced once and for all by an H? All of which was well and good from my point of view. I love the BFS. I love the people involved in the society, their passion for strange fiction of all stripes and their support of the work of independent publishers. I vote in the awards every year, and most years the awards are dominated by horror. Which I find, it has to be said, frustrating.

I used to read horror a lot. Between, I think, 12 and 14 I made the step up from children’s fiction to adult fiction via two routes: devouring all of the Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming books in our school library; and immersing myself in the Pan and Fontana books of ghost stories at home. After that I hit King and Herbert, Lovecraft and Campbell and for a few years, until I drifted into fantasy, I was hooked. Perhaps I was just at exactly the right, suggestible age, but every haunting I read was plausible, every variation on murder was a genuine gothic surprise. Must have been 1982 or 1983 that we got a video player, so it was no surprise that I also became a horror movie addict. Summer holidays, curtains closed and three or four movies from the video shop’s vast selection of luridly jacketed shlock flicks. It’s safe to say that I consumed and enjoyed my fair share of the genre.

Possibly I maxed out, because since then I’ve found it difficult to really enjoy horror the way I did when I first came to it. And this is a shame, because I suspect that there is a lot of excellent writing being executed in the genre’s name. I do enjoy my regular doses of Black Static, but while they are all well written not all of the stories actually thrill me (BS also also published the winning submissions in Maura McHugh and Christopher Fowler’s Campaign For Real Fear in 2010, which was an excellent attempt to break people away from the traditional tropes). And that’s our best example. Other venues don’t do nearly so well. I read a short ghost story on the way to work this morning, and it pretty much nailed where most horror falls down for me: it was boring. Its premise was obvious from the start, the characterisation non-existent, the prose aimless. It totally lacked atmosphere.

Okay, that’s just one example, and perhaps an unfair one. Like I said above, I’m sure there are many examples of very well written new horror fiction (there certainly were loads in the past if The Weird is anything to go by) , but even being well written isn’t enough. I think one of the genuine issues I have with horror is that of predictability. If you know going in to a story that it’s a horror story, the range of potential outcomes is automatically reduced: something terrible is going to happen, either to someone who deserves it or someone who doesn’t. Karmic revenge or random act of senseless violence. Okay, I’m being intentionally devisive here. There’s  undoubtedly more variation in storyline in contemporary horror than that, but if there is I don’t seem to be finding much of it.

Same goes for tone and atmosphere. Same goes for setting. Same goes for monsters, and not just the famous ones. Predictable.

I’ve decided that this bee in this bonnet of mine is actually a craving for good, new scary stories. I mentioned the Campaign For Real Fear above: just like that. So what am I after? I want to read something with serious atmosphere, with an original mythology, with characters I can genuinely empathise with. A believable plot with a logic built of hard truths, please: “just desserts” is the biggest lie in fiction, it sucks all possible truth from a story. And if a story has no truth, it can’t be scary.

It’s not much to ask, is it?

So, any suggestions? What new writers are going to fit my bill. Nominations of novels are especially welcome because while I occasionally find a great wee story, the recent horror novels I’ve tried have all left me cold.

But I guess there’s a money-mouth disparity going on here, isn’t there? I’m a writer, and one who has publicly challenged himself to get 10 new stories into print this year. If I’m so down on current horror why don’t I try writing it myself? There’s a Neil Gaiman quote about why he wrote Starlight: “Because I was looking for a specific kind of book and, since I couldn’t find it in the shops, I just had to write it myself.”

Truth is I’ve had some story ideas kicking around for a while, some of them for longer than others. Dark ones. In a certain light they might be called horror. And it’s possible that they’ve not been completed and sent out to market for exactly the reasons I outline above. So, yes, as part of the 2012 short story drive, I’m going to push myself and try and squeeze out my interpretation of what makes a scary story. If they get into print, you can make up your own mind about whether I’m talking bollocks or not.

If they don’t even get that far you have my permission to point and laugh.

And for any writer’s ego, that’s a pretty terrifying prospect.

18 thoughts on “Oh, The Horror!

  1. “…a believable plot with a logic built of hard truths, please: ‘just desserts’ is the biggest lie in fiction, it sucks all possible truth from a story. And if a story has no truth, it can’t be scary.”

    Hear hear! Well said all around, Neil.

      1. Well the Grossbarts were pretty damn horrible on their own, so good! And…bad, I guess. Looking forward to it.

  2. I think horror is really difficult to do well in novel form. Once past my teens/early 20s, I found most horror novels unreadable. She’s not a new writer, but I loved Caitlin R. Kiernan’s THE RED TREE (she doesn’t consider herself a horror writer, though, FWIW).

    I think “bad things happen to someone who does/doesn’t deserve it” is a real pitfall of horror (the first being a particularly irritating formula). In many cases it can be about the way the story is told and/or the subtext developed along the way. More about the journey than the destination, maybe? That may be as well why I tend to like unresolved or ambiguous endings. I don’t think most readers or editors agree with me on that, though.

    1. I heard lots of good things about The Red Tree, Lynda. Should really track it down.

      As for construction, you can definitely get away with sticking to the formula if you’re liberal with the seasoning, and subject does go a long way.

      I’ve kinda gone off ambiguity too, though. Which makes this even tougher.:)

  3. Just in case Jesse’s too modest to speak out, I’ll recommend ‘The Enterprise of Death’ for him. It’s all the horror you need and plenty more stuff besides. I’m also getting a great deal of pleasure from Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti as well, but you already know about them. They’re both represented in ‘The Weird’ for a start.

    1. Thanks, Jim! And I heartily agree on Barron and Ligotti–Barron’s collection Occultation was one of my very favorites of last year. I’ve also been very much enjoying the horror fiction of Livia Llewellyn, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, and Stephen Graham Jones, just to name four off the top of my head who are going to disparate dark places…

      1. I know a few of those names, but not their work. Thanks so much for the recommendations.

        Btw I’m guessing that SGJ uses his middle name to prevent confusion with the English anthologist?

  4. Thanks, Jim. Yep, I know about Barron and Ligotti, although perhaps I ought to be paying more attention to them than I have been.

    And The Enterprise Of Death looks like a very worthy follow up to The Brothers Grossbart too. I was going to be buying that one anyway though.

  5. I think I can echo your experience. My main reason for putting my hat in for Dark Horizons editor was almost the same problem. I was reading the journal thinking I kept reading the same story. For me a lot of it starts from the snarky post-Scream comic-book-guy that seems to be the default ‘voice’ or viewpoint as though nobody ever experienced this event for the first time without running through numerous culture references instead of you know running.

    What I really think is the problem, is sadly incurable – age, or rather experience. I find I now have too much empathy with what’s happening to watch horror films the way I once did. Horror is mainly the home of things that are funny and gross to the adolescent mind. As I think I said before, and damn Ballard for getting there first, as hell is other people, real horror is being human, frail, emotional. Anything that exposes that weakness involuntarily, usually other people, is where it all creeps in.

    Perhaps its why I like Lovecraft and Barker so much – unique universes in each story where your only frame of reference is that like the protagonist you’re human too.

    1. I think your last sentence is pretty key, Rich. And it chimes with my call for (amongst other things) innovative mythologies. What’s great about those two writers–Barker especially because he’s more current and, you know, not mad–is that their approach to believable fear *doesn’t* obviate the fantastical element. In fact between them those writers created some of the most indelible horror mythologies that there have ever been.

      When I’m looking for “hard truths”, I’m not restricting my view to horrific realism. I’m not particularly interested in the psychopathic serial killer genre (hey, once you’ve read Joyce Carol Oates’s “Zombie” there is nowhere else to go in that direction!).

      As for empathy coming with age. I kind of agree. I’m always mindful of the two lads in the video shop in Royston Vasey. “How many killings has it got?” More than anything though, a killer going through a story or a movie finding increasingly novel ways to off people, in story terms, gets dull quickly.

  6. Aliette de Bodard’s highly impressive ‘Obsidian and Blood’ trilogy can certainly be read as horror. It’s also about as far away as you can get from your dreaded cooky-cutter modern urban serial killer, Neil.

  7. The trilogy can be read in lots of other ways: noir; historical; fantasy. The way that they combine makes it fairly unique, though.

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