Who are the authors that you look forward to reading when they release something new?
Too many to list. I’ll restrict myself to three from within the horror genre and two outsiders.
Within genre, Conrad Williams and Peter Straub, both of whom are consummate prose stylists, such that even the telephone directory would read better if they penned it, and I believe that I do have two titles by Williams in the ‘to be read’ pile at this very moment, one of them a This Is Horror chapbook (Editor’s note: The Fox was recently reviewed in Black Static. Peter praised it as “a whiteout of a story”). My third selection is Sarah Langan, who if she doesn’t quite have the prose chops of the other two, is a superb storyteller and one of the most exciting new talents to emerge in the genre in recent times. Halfway through the first book I ever read by Langan, I knew that I would want to read everything else that she produced.
A down side of almost constantly reading for review, is that while I only select books that I want to read, I don’t always get to choose the books I want to read the most, and that’s even more true when it comes to work from outside the horror genre. Crime writer James Ellroy and mainstream novelist John Irving are two writers I used to follow religiously back in the day but have lost touch with recently, and just as soon as the review bandwagon grinds to a halt, I’m into their back catalogues like an axe murderer at a prom night.
How do you believe horror fiction has changed over time? Has it changed for the better?
The genre has had its ups and downs, peaks and troughs. I don’t have the figures to back it up, but I suspect that in commercial terms it’s healthier now than it has been in a long while, though a large part of that is down to the overlap with paranormal romance. I’m pretty certain that we’re never again going to see anything like the success of the late 80s, when publishers seemed willing to throw just about anything into print, as long as they could use words like ‘blood’ and ‘dark’ on the cover. With hindsight, those days were simply a blip in the life cycle of a genre that is, by its very nature, fated to be a marginal activity, with a few exceptions.
What I am certain about is that, at least as far as the UK is concerned, the genre is in robust health creatively, with a constant supply of new practitioners ready to don the mantle of the dark literary arts, such as Gary McMahon and Conrad Williams, Sarah Pinborough and Adam Nevill, Joseph D’Lacey and Alison Littlewood, to name just a few. There are a lot of unique voices out there clamouring to be heard, with material that runs the whole gamut from splatter punk to cosmic horror, touching on all points between, books that are meant simply to entertain sitting comfortably next to volumes with somewhat more grandiose ambitions. Where we do fall down slightly is in diversity as regards who is writing horror. I monitor gender representation in the anthologies that are sent to me for review, and last time I checked for the UK the figure for women in non-reprint horror anthologies is 16%, compared to 31% for the US, 33% for Canada and 44% in Australia. While I can accept that less women than men wish to write horror, why we appear to be trailing so far behind other countries perplexes me. Despite the recent prominence of writers like Pinborough and Littlewood, horror in the UK seems to still be mainly a genre for the boys, and when it comes to ethnic diversity, offhand I can’t think of any writers who come from a non-white background, or at least any who have made much of an impact beyond the small or independent press.
Should I mention that the UK has a very healthy small/independent press scene? Yes, I most certainly should, given that both Black Static and This Is Horror are part of that scene. The UK has a very healthy small/independent press scene.
Some people are concerned about the prevalence of the vampire and zombie archetypes, that they may be swamping the genre, but I don’t share their concerns while recognising that such convenient bandwagons attract the less talented, less original writers. These fads come and go, and if all vampire and zombie books disappeared from the shelves tomorrow, the hacks would just move on to the next big thing, whatever that happened to be, you wouldn’t see any overall increase in the quality of output. To call for a moratorium on these archetypes seems to me somewhat akin to fans of Crime fiction complaining that there are too many books about murder in their genre. It isn’t how commonplace or banal a trope has become, so much as what individual writers can do with it, and some of the best fiction I’ve read recently, work by Jasper Kent and Glen Hirshberg, Tim Lebbon and Amelia Beamer, has dealt with vampires and zombies. Sure, there’s plenty of work that is average and derivative, or simply crap, but then when hasn’t that been the case?
Another trend we’ve seen is the further blurring of genre boundaries. The obvious example is paranormal romance, but equally if you can find a high street bookstore to go and stand in, then stand in the Crime section, and a significant number of the titles on the shelves will have cover images, tag lines, back cover copy, such that if you moved them over into the Horror section they’d fit right in. Similarly, much apocalyptic fiction has a foot in both the SF and Horror camps. And, as part of that blurring, we’ve seen mainstream writers turning their hands to horror fiction. Glen Duncan does werewolves, Colson Whitehead does zombies, Justin Cronin does vampires, Helen Dunmore and Jeanette Winterson are writing for Hammer. Yes, you heard that right. Jeanette Winterson is writing for Hammer, sharing a publisher with Shaun Hutson. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. Of course, being the literati, these guys and gals probably think they invented it all for themselves, but that’s neither here nor there. If things continue like this, Horror could very well end up respectable (pauses to shudder).
But how has horror changed thematically? Not much, but let’s say that it’s become more focused, surer of what it wants to be now that it’s all grown up. My gut feeling is that the genre’s moved a distance away from the old template where it was defined by the emotion that it strived to create, though terror is still very much part of the bill of fare/fear. And that I think is a good thing, as the idea of a literature whose main purpose was to induce scares in the reader has always seemed misguided to me, on the one hand so restricting in scope and on the other patently absurd, with the most frightening thing about the great majority of genre blockbusters the possibility of dropping them on your toe. I prefer the idea of a literature that ‘disturbs’. As part of that we’ve seen a readjustment of our idea of the monster, something that perhaps gained its greatest impetus from the work of Clive Barker but has come to full fruition with the shiny vampires of Twilight (for some, a step too far).
Digressing for a moment, personally I don’t see the popularity of shiny vampires as any more of an impediment or threat to the fictional existence of bloodsucking fiends than romantic leads are to the existence of serial killers, and playing devil’s advocate I can’t help wondering if the fact that so many young people are now regarding the vampire as somebody just like themselves, except for the small matter of blood drinking, is a good sign, a sign that we’re becoming more tolerant of those who are different. I’m not quite sure that I believe such a thing, but I want to and it’s an area where some research might be welcome. It’s just that I don’t want to read about shiny vampires all that much.
Right, paranormal romance get thee behind me. Meanwhile, back at the slaughterhouse…
People are multi-faceted, each of us with our own dark side, and in its current form horror is perhaps more ideally suited to engage with that than any of the other genres. More than ever it’s not just the literature of short, sharp shocks, the fiction of fear, but rather a tool with which we can explore the darker aspects of our world and ourselves. While other genres deal with our understanding of the universe and/or society and our place in it, the things that we don’t and probably never can understand remain primarily the concern of horror. Terror has ceased to be an end in itself, now that the monster and its victim have become a reflection of our own faces, seen in a mirror darkly, representative of both the suffering we may be asked to endure and the pain we can inflict on others. That I believe is the genre’s true potential, something which was always there but now is increasingly moving centre stage.
But of course you can still simply enjoy horror for the thrills and spills it has to offer, take the monster at face value, go for the gross-out, live for the moment when something jumps out at you and screams “Boo!” That’s cool too.
Are there any sub-genres that you actively try and avoid?
Very few, or at least not that I’m consciously aware of. We get sent the occasional bit of paranormal romance – I’m not sure that can accurately be categorised as a subgenre of horror fiction, but let’s say it is for the sake of the argument – and though I’ve reviewed people like Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton in the past, it’s not something I’m going to make a regular thing of, as that’s really not where Black Static is coming from, and I tend to veer away from books targeted at the YA demographic or even younger, as I’m not really sure that, as a fifty-nine year old, I have anything useful to say about those. Other than that, I’m pretty much an equal opportunity reviewer. Your shuffling zombies, your vampires, your serial killers, your haunted house stories and man eating monster crabs, your things that go bump in the night, bring them all on, and anything else you have besides.
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