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.