One 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.
Perhaps, 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.