Why horror readers and writers are destroying the genre they love

The Lost Boys TribeOne of the common complaints I hear from those who love the horror genre is the lack of respect given to it from those who read literary works. There appears to be an ill-informed assumption from these so-called literary snobs and those who don’t read horror material, that it’s all about zombies, vampires, werewolves and apocalyptic scenarios, and nothing else (especially the first two). And every day, there’s a veritable deluge of new tomes in the two former subgenres flooding the market.

And that, I feel, is most of the problem – many horror writers and readers create this impression themselves, by producing (and buying) an endless stream of books all riffing on the same theme. I won’t deny that, amongst all those books, there’s bound to be one or two examples where the author has looked at the familiar tropes from a completely new angle, in the process creating something that’s worth reading. I can guarantee, however, that the vast majority are just retreads of the same story over-and-over again. In any creative arena, that’s an awfully bad thing, because it means that the genre is no longer evolving – it’s edging toward stasis.

Whatever you think of Stephenie Meyer, she at least tried something new with the vampire theme even if, at the end of the day, she managed to piss a lot of people off in the process with her re-imagining. Over the years, both writers and filmmakers have looked at different ways of recasting both genre species, adding a twist here and there to bring a fresh perspective and vision to audiences. That’s easier said than done, of course: just about all possible re-envisionings have been wrung out of both by now. But, we can thank people like George Romero (especially for Dawn of the Dead, using the zombie metaphor for mindless consumerism) and also writers such as Brian Lumley, creator of the Necroscope series and the Wamphyri.

Underlying both tour de forces is a strict adherence to popular lore about zombies and vampires. That aspect remains inviolate, but it’s the thematic expression which has been changed. Whereas many years ago, with the likes of the various Universal monster movies, audiences attended cinemas to be thrilled and chilled by the likes of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) and their respective iconic creations, in these days of Xboxes, CGI and short attention spans, both cinema-goers and readers are much more sophisticated and therefore a lot more demanding. They want more than the same old, same old – churning it out gets tiring very quickly.

When I was younger I, too, stayed with what I knew, reluctant to branch out and find new types of story within the horror genre – which, in some ways, is very surprising, as I was always searching for new writers and ideas in science fiction, my second great love. This is the reason why epic fantasy and I parted ways – I was getting heartily sick of the same old plot albeit with different character names and different titles on the cover. Plus it seemed that all fantasy books came in whacking great big trilogies. There’s only so much I can read of the same thing before I start throwing the damn things at the wall.

I suspect that there are many out there who feel exactly the same way I do. Having said that, I understand the motivations behind people wanting to both write and read zombie or vampire fiction. For writers, if something’s popular and selling well, why not jump on and cut yourself a slice of the action. As a reader, it’s something you’re familiar with and know the general themes and tropes well.  If you enjoy reading either vampire or zombie fiction (or indeed both), why stray outside your comfort zone and read something unfamiliar by an author you haven’t encountered before? It’s as much about the thrill of anticipation as it is about fulfilling certain expectations. Every genre has its basic framework and, as fans of any particular one of them, we expect certain things to happen at certain times. When they don’t, we’re either disappointed or disoriented by their lack of appearance.

The Dawn of the DeadPerhaps, too, for new writers, it’s somehow easier to write something like a vampire or zombie novel. That might be done purely for reasons of getting the name out there. Certainly my favourite author Clive Barker started out writing short stories that would be categorised as classic horror, which I have always thought was his way of getting noticed (and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing). The difference between Barker’s and other writer’s work is that there was already more than a hint in the former case that here was a genuinely original talent, which his later books amply proved. Plus, back then, we didn’t have the whole self-publishing and e-book phenomenon, which might have meant that, had it existed, he would have been swamped by the deluge of lesser writers (but I very much doubt it).

As a publisher, I have to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in genre fiction, not necessarily to see what’s currently popular per se but simply to keep abreast of developments within an area of literature I love. Spectral will always go its own way, regardless of fashion and fads within horror. But I have to admit that it depresses me more than slightly to see writers who are keen to make something of their work constantly fall back on tired old formulae and tropes. While most have absolutely no delusions of attaining the stratospheric heights of fame and fortune with their stories and are simply doing it for fun and pleasure, there are a percentage that genuinely want to make money from their endeavours. That’s an admirable ambition – however, to be a really worthy writer, I believe you have to not only have good writing skills but also a flair for originality.

Let me give you an example of a writer who truly has a vein of originality miles thick: Tim Lebbon. Some years ago I read his Cemetery Dance collection Last Exit for the Lost and his Chizine novella The Thief of Broken Toys. I’ve read many an author over the years, but Tim’s work left me both reeling and astounded. The breadth of imagination on display is breathtaking, and yet his writing style is one of the sparsest I have yet come across. In the Cemetery Dance collection I thoroughly recommend the novella which closes the book, ‘Nothing Heavenly’ – a truly amazing piece of work. Equally, The Thief of Broken Toys was one of the most original pieces of literature I’d read in years.

I think Tim Lebbon is the kind of writer that new writers should be reading and studying. I would also recommend Adam Nevill (who can build claustrophobic atmosphere and dread in mere paragraphs) and Graham Joyce. These writers have made, or are making people, sit up and take notice on the strength of what they write and the depths their writing contains. More to the point, it’s highly unique. This is what all authors should be aiming for. This, in my opinion, is what will elevate the genre above what the snobs call ‘worthless, escapist’ twaddle. While there will always be those who love zombies and vampires (and who am I to deny them their pleasure?), I also sincerely believe that the marketplace is glutted with too many such tomes, and writers should be looking elsewhere and exploring new territory. I feel it’s got to such a point that the currency of zombies and vampires is becoming worthless, and seriously misrepresents the current state of the genre. As my favourite type of reading, it has a great deal more value than that.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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13 comments

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  1. Tony Cowin

    Couldn’t agree more. Why horror differs from, and let’s be honest also suffers, because of other fiction is due to the fact it can often feel insubstantial. Your point about Romero using zombies as metaphors for American racism and consumerism is spot on. These days horror often feels like it’s about the stopping of the heart rather than placing something deep inside it.

    I love horror and always have but I’ve never watched a Saw film. I’ve never written a vampire or zombie story either (though I have tried and failed miserably). I’m writing my first ghost story that has an actual ghost rather than something which is a metaphor for personal or societal conflict.

    I’ve been laughed at for saying I want to write horror as if Richard Yates had decided upon the genre. Not that I want to examine the breakup of the American dream, well maybe its nightmares. I just feel to write truly horrific monsters we have to examine the humans who create them first.

  2. John Forth

    Great article, Simon. Really gets to the heart of the problem I have with a lot of modern horror fiction.

  3. Charmaine Clancy

    I think it’s harsh to assume writers are jumping on bandwagons, writing a topic because it’s popular. Most writers I know get an idea, it annoys them, they come up with their angle and they write the story. And sometimes those stories might not seem very original, but I don’t think the author’s intention was to ever cash in on a trend. There are snobs for every genre, I hear it a lot for romance and mystery writing, but the flip side is there are plenty of people that won’t touch a book if it is deemed ‘literary’ because they assume it’ll be boring. Maybe these judgements are our way of justifying our own tastes?

  4. ThisIsHorror.co.uk

    I am not saying that writers jumping on bandwagons is necessarliy a bad thing (after all, if it sells, then fine), what I *AM* saying is that there appears to be so many books using the vampire and zombie themes right now that we’re inundated with them. On the one hand, it shows that the scene is alive and healthy, but on the other it gives the impression that the horror genre is incredibly limited in scope and vision. I’m certainly NOT saying that no-one should write either zombie or vampire fiction, as there are some incredible examples of fiction in both subgenres. The same goes for film iterations. I would just like to see a bit more variety going on from the genre.

  5. JZ Murdock

    This is what I tried not to do with my latest book, Death of Heaven. I pretty much tried to throw the book in the garbage and start over, even going back to before the Earth was created, then redefining religion and pretty much everything. So far, it seems to be appreciated. But I agree, let’s try not to rehash the same things over and over, or if we do, let’s make it interesting.
    That being said, people like Romero, well, they defined their area so leave them be to do what they do. It’s nice when they change it up but who better to do what they do, than they themselves. lol

  6. David

    The glut of the same style stories is overwhelming, I believe that is why Hollywood does so many remakes as wll these days, no originality. To truly make a new story requires imagination, vision, and do some research to add some vaildity to it!

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. Colin Leslie

    I agree with almost everything you say Simon (especially about Tim Lebbon) but there was one point you made that caused me to pause, ” in these days of Xboxes, CGI and short attention spans, both cinema-goers and readers are much more sophisticated “, really?

    I think the major issue here is a lack of sophistication both from the consumer and the supplier which has led to Katie Price being a best-seller while Tim Lebbon remains on the sidelines. You could equally argue the same for movies and music.

    The sad passing of Ray Bradbury reminds me that he predicted this years ago in Fahrenheit 451 where it’s not so much the book burners who are at fault but the consumers who no longer want or need the books. It’s just as well there are still quality producers, such as Spectral, to keep the torch lit. Hopefully one day the public will realise there is more entertainment in a chapter of Tim Lebbon that in any amount of dancing dogs on TV.

  8. James Bennett

    I don’t think it’s too harsh to assume that some writers are jumping on bandwagons. I suggested it before on a certain author’s blog and was roundly shouted down, but while I had and have no malice aforethought to any writer (how could I? I am one), I guess I was questioning why there were so many books in the shop that seemed exactly the same. Sure, there is no harm writing for a market, but artistic integrity should at least play a part. Does the world really need another teen vampire romance? Shouldn’t fiction challenge young minds? How are young minds challenged if modern culture encourages and promotes the fact that in art, music, films and books, safe and same are cool? We also have a duty to encourage and promote the avant garde.

    When I was growing up, vampires, zombies and werewolves were main creature features *within* a much wider genre. They weren’t genres in themselves. With so many reboots and remakes around, it’s easy to see why some folks would start to wonder where the raw creativity went. Bram Stoker put a new spin on an old theme. Why can’t the same thing happen now? Why does it have to stop? We’re remaking movies for *ten years ago*!!!??? Homogenisation and commercially safe bets are flooding the market. When that happens, art suffers.

    I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important to ask the questions, and I hope that this brilliant and brave article gives many food for thought.

  9. JZ Murdock

    I just don’t see any fun in writing what everyone else is. Then again, I do enjoy putting a spin on the run down stereotypes. So I will probably never become rich writing if I don’t do what everyone else is writing. That being said, I so hate how they are making remake after remake in the movies anymore. My screenplays aren’t run of the mill either, which is why they are so hard to pitch. If someone just sits down and reads one, they seem to like it, but who is going to do that? Or, take a chance on something new or different? Pretty much NO one. Excpet in the indies and so the reason why I have always loved them!

  10. Qwantu Amaru

    I definitely agree that there is a lack of variety in the horror genre. Where are the modern era Poe’s, Lovecraft’s, Rice’s, and King’s? One of the best horror authors out today is Tananarive Due with her African Immortal series, something that breathes fresh life into the horror genre as a whole. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read her.

  11. Robin Reed

    MAMA by Robin Morris. No vampires, werewolves, zombies, or any other monster that you have heard of.

    Okay, I wrote it. I usually wouldn’t have mentioned my own book here, but the topic cries out for suggestions of new horror ideas.

  12. Luke Walker

    Superb article. Horror can be (and is) so much more than the tired tropes people fall back on. Vampires and werewolves are all well and good, but unless the writer is taking them into new places, there isn’t a hell of a lot we can do with them that hasn’t been done plenty of times before. At the risk of sounding like I’m having a pop at the genre, I think paranormal romance has had something of a negative effect on horror. It’s all lumped together as if all it takes be classed as horror is to have a hunky vampire on the front. It adds to the impression for non-horror readers that it’s disposable fluff.

    And Tim Lebbon is one of the best writers out there.

  13. T.A. Wardrope

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I think Twilight shouldn’t be seen as part of the horror genre. I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but everything I’ve seen about it makes me think it is teen romance that has incorporated some horror tropes. That’s like saying Scooby-Do is horror. I love Scooby-Do, but there’s nothing really horrific about it.

    Horror tropes are like comic book superheroes. Relying on established rules saves the author time on the backstory but takes a risk of creating something boring and derivative. The only successful way to use mythic or cliche elements is to illuminate them in a particular way.

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