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A grave state – an exploration of the horror genre today

grave state of horrorEver since I started reading horror in my teens, people have been declaring the death of the genre, yet horror novels continue to be written and published. You often hear of folk being nostalgic for the horror boom of the 80s, but really was that such a renaissance of the field? For all the great writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Dennis Etchison there were dozens upon dozens of terrible hacks riding the bandwagon, producing awful works packaged with images of demons ravaging women or dripping skulls. Nostalgia is a powerful force, but it often skews true vision.

Having said that, there does indeed seem to be a popular opinion of horror and it is closely linked with the view that the genre is all about serial killers, gore or monsters (an opinion formed from the impact of that boom period I just mentioned). Of course you and I, as readers in the field, know that horror is far wider in its range than that. Part of the problem, however, is the definition of the genre itself.

Horror.

It’s just too narrow and prescriptive. It suggests that works in this field aim solely to repulse or terrify; it narrows the genre rather than opens it up. I’ve encountered a whole range of emotions reading horror novels over the years. Stephen King writes very movingly about childhood and there is a real warmth to his characters. Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem produced some of their most honest and achingly beautiful work with their autobiographical novel The Man on The Ceiling. This is why I think that there is some weight behind the argument that horror is rather more a tone than an actual genre. If you like your fiction dark and to explore the depths of human consciousness then there has been much published outside of the field that will appeal to you.

For example, let me point you towards Flann O’ Brien’s brilliant, surrealistic nightmare – The Third Policeman. This outwardly pastoral novel soon becomes something far stranger: a journey into a personal hell; an amalgam of philosophy, extraordinarily strange characterisation and a League of Gentlemen-esque sense of comedy. It’s not published as horror per-se, but O’Brien shares much with the best of Lovecraft and Robert Aickman.

Or perhaps you’d consider taking a look at Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic novel in which the re-discovery of language leads to some dark explorations.

However, what of the genre now? Well, it seems to me that a lot of the good writers are still there. Good writing does tend to out. Whereas poor, trashy horror may well have it’s moment in the sun before being quickly forgotten. It is true that the genre as a commercial entity, however, has seen better times. Publishers do indeed find it difficult to sell in a work as pure Horror for all the reasons I have mentioned above. That’s why we have to be slightly more flexible in how we package titles. For example, fiction that you and I would recognise as horror is being put out without that label being appended to the actual book. Adam Nevill’s last three novels have all gone out as Fiction. The covers of those works could easily stand for thriller or crime, as they could for a horror novel. We’ve done the same thing with several of our own titles, choosing, for example to publish Steve Tem’s Deadfall Hotel as Fiction in the UK, and Horror in the US, where the term doesn’t come with quite so much baggage.

Of course, as readers of the genre, there is a part of us that wants to celebrate what we fell in love with in the first place, part of us that wants to say to the world “No, fuck it! This is Horror and I like it.” And that’s perfectly fine, but we also have to realise that in a lot of ways horror has grown up and it’s okay for it to go out there and interact with the other kids, and learn from them.

So try not to despair that the Horror shelf in Waterstones seems to almost entirely be the preserve of those usual three (Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert), rather know that horror has evolved, and if you’re looking for intelligent, dark fiction, then the range is far wider than you may realise.

JONATHAN OLIVER
PHOTO BY BEN SALTER

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2 comments

  1. David Searls

    I agree with the post. The term “horror,” in fiction, has sometimes seen as the equivalent of “teen slasher film” in movies. I mentally cringe when I have to describe my latest novel, MALEVOLENT as being a horror nove;. I think a lot of people expect what it isn’t.

    Lately, I’ve adopted the term “dark fiction” for my work. Literature, like everything else, is all about branding.

  2. adam nevill

    I don’t think I’m a good example to be used in this argument. I’ve never said I’m anything but a horror writer, and horror is suggested and written all over my books. I even publically declare, as does my publisher, that I am a writer of “supernatural horror” which is so far down the column of literary respectibility, it’s bed fellows are probably romance and porn. But I am proud to be a British writer, and champion, of supernatural horror. Pan are quite pioneering in that they acquired me and publish me as a British horror writer – it’s in every press release and the sales info to booksellers. They’re not trying to disguise what I write. I’d say crime and thriller fiction is more often trying to look like horror cinema publicity, when the content of the books would disappoint any horror fan. My covers are positioned for a general readership of dark matter as well as horror fans, which I am delighted with and it shows an aspiration to make horror look stylish and not adolescent. General readers often have to be reminded that they like, for instance, ghost stories. But in no way are Pan trying to diguise what I write, or slip horror into the crime section by stealth. I’m quite pleased my books are going some way to retaking ownership of that imagery you see in crime and thriller, that suggests horror. I wish more publishers of horror would take Pan’s lead. A great many genre titles on the shelves are now trying to cross so many genres, with the intention of catching the eye of as many readers as possible, I often just see confusion and contrivance. My advice is to not reinvent the horror wheel, but to build it better and to make it look contemporary and grown up. The last thing the grass shoots of a new wave of horror needs now is avoiding the classification of Horror.

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