Wednesday, May 20, 2015

No, Horror is Not Doomed.

I was linked to this article earlier today, and my response to it was strong enough that I actually remembered about this long-dormant blog thing here. So, an expanded commentary based on my Facebook comments:

If anybody watched Lisa Morton's opening speech at this year's Stoker Awards, she pretty much nailed it. Horror is in a more prominent position now than possibly ever before, and both the quantity and quality of the work is reflected in its prominence.

The problem with any article seeking to describe horror is that horror defies and denies description and definition. In part, this is because horror is equal parts narrative genre and narrative tactic/device. Horror is, at its core, confrontation, and confrontation exists within every narrative genre as a necessary element of storytelling. Find a (non-surrealist) story without conflict, and I'll buy you a candy bar of your choosing. So to claim that horror is a monolithic concept, a singular icon beholden solely to its form as it existed in the Victorian novel is to see only a small percentage of what horror exists as in its current form.

Or, in other words, to say that horror is any one thing is to be wrong.

None of this is to say that some of the criticisms leveled by the article are wrong, I think that Stuart Kelly makes a few astute and accurate observations. But the article as a whole misses the point. Horror has not failed, and it is not languishing. In fact, the improvements that Kelly says he has faith we are capable of have already been achieved, he's simply not seeing it because his view of what horror is lacks the breadth and depth to see beyond Victorian novels and the 1970s-1980s era of horror that gave rise to much of what "modern" horror is.

Literary horror of the likes written by Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, Ted E. Grau, Stephen Graham Jones, and others, is horror that connects with both the casual horror fan and the fan of exquisite writing. Much like the works of Thomas Ligotti (who is another master of literary horror that defies the article's gloom and doom outlook), these writers have a mastery of sentence structure easily equal to that of what pompous windbags in ivory towers would tout as "real" fiction. (Is my bias becoming clear yet?) This is horror that can trace a direct line back to Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, and Poe. But what Kelly fails to realize is that this is hardly the entirety of horror available to readers.

Books like Fight Club, the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Road, and even works like The Hunger Games trilogy all have elements of horror in their stories. Post-apocalyptic stories that evoke hellish imagery, or a psychotic devolution of an individual leading to a massive societal confrontation, or dragons that can swoop in and eat people at a whim, these are not bright and shiny stories that leave us feeling happy and fulfilled. These are stories of conflict, interior and exterior, with monstrous forces. Whether or not they're actual monsters varies from story to story, but is also completely irrelevant. Joyce Carol Oats' Zombie was about a human being, as was McCarthy's The Road. The short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would fit virtually any definition of a modern horror story available. There doesn't need to be a Frankenstein's Monster or a Mr. Hyde or a Count Dracula in the story to make it horror, or even horrific. Anything or anyone that can be made monstrous can be made horrific and horrifying. And this is exactly where Kelly's article disproves his own point.

He states:
Sophie Hannah, Josh Bazell and Denise Mina have reinvented crime fiction; Charles Yu, Iain M Banks and M John Harrison have given a literary uplift to science fiction; while China MiĆ©ville, Jeff VanderMeer and Kelly Link have done the same for fantasy. But horror – the third aspect of "speculative fiction" – has had markedly less success. Yet it might be the genre most tractable to our contemporary concerns.

And he's right. They have. And they've done it by infusing their stories with horror. Just because Stephen King isn't writing books that would appeal to the aforementioned ivory tower windbags doesn't mean that there aren't stories they'd approve of that either are horror stories, or have elements of horror in them. That Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Charles Yu, China MiƩville, and others are employing elements of horror in their writings is not evidence that horror is failing, it's proof that horror has succeeded, and is continuing to succeed.

We are everywhere.