I’ve been writing horror for more than thirty years now and I still don’t know what the hell it is.
I’m not sure how to define it. What some call horror others call dark fantasy. What I have defined as horror some of my readers have called thriller. And the parameters of horror are changing so much it’s becoming even more difficult to define the genre these days. If I’m perfectly honest I think that the horror genre as everyone knew and loved it is effectively dead, killed by the rise of novels like The Silence of the Lambs and now swamped completely with publishers indifference towards horror itself and their devotion to kids books, crime, chick-lit and fantasy (I’d include the Twilight saga, God help us, in the latter category because not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination is it horror although maybe it should be in with chick-lit.). And I don’t think horror will ever rise again because it won’t be allowed to. The indifference of publishers has killed it as surely as a stake through the heart or a silver bullet!
Horror has lost its balls or rather it’s been gelded by publishers who seem intent on ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to read ‘traditional’ horror. As I’ve said before never has such a profitable trend at the cinema been so blatantly disregarded by the book business.
Film trends usually spill over into literature but despite the fact that horror films seem to be filling most multiplexes up and down the country, horror in its written form is still being largely ignored by publishers. How many bookshops actually have a horror section these days? And if they do what’s in it other than Stephen King, Dean Koontz, a few Richard Laymon, one or two of mine (if I’m lucky), a couple of Lovecraft anthologies, a collection of ghost stories and maybe a handful of James Herbert? The shelves are stuffed with ‘vampire’ or ‘werewolf’ novels (usually along the same lines as Twilight and probably set in a girls boarding school in the States) there might be some zombie novels (because they’re trendy) and there will probably be some mixed genre offerings (i.e. the detective is already dead/is a vampire/is a ghost hunter/ exorcist etc. etc.).
Stop trying to be edgy
Where are all the monsters? Where are the things in the attic? What became of the beasts in cellars? No one wants to touch this kind of horror these days for fear of being called unoriginal or clichéd. Everyone likes to think that they are being ‘edgy’ (God I hate that word). Well fuck that, why did any of us ever buy horror? To have the shit scared out of us if I remember rightly and if the best way to induce that loosening of the bowels or that contraction of the stomach is to use a ‘monster’ then so what? But no, publishers want the ‘different’ approach that they’ve seen be so successful with the sanitised and trendy crap being presented to us now. They don’t want tradition. They don’t even want the things that made the horror genre (at one time) the strongest in the book business. Horror was always the poor relation as far as the book business was concerned (despite the fact that it made the business lots of money it was always something of an embarrassment) and that seems to be even more the case these days.
Now admittedly when you’re writing a novel you have to find a different angle when you’re telling a story, a different and new way (if possible) of coming at well used themes but that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore all the tradition of the classic horror novel. I’m not saying that all the heroes and villains should be noticeably different, in fact if you can blur the lines between the two then that’s even better. It’s true that many of my main characters are even more flawed and fucked up than the villains they face but then that’s more a reflection of their lives rather than trying to make them self-consciously different. People’s marriages break up, they drink, they smoke, they have affairs etc. etc. Why should this be reserved for characters perceived to be the ‘bad guys’?
I write about a universe where everyone is equally fucked up regardless of which side of the law they’re on! Flawed characters are more interesting. It’s also easier to create sympathy for a leading character if they’ve got more ‘baggage’. Readers will look more kindly on a character that’s just lost their child/spouse/mind than they will on someone with a perfect life who breezes through every day as if it’s a carnival.
Blurring the line between good and evil is always advisable too. Evil is always more effective and more terrifying if it’s attractive. Dracula is a classic example of this although if Bram Stoker had written it nowadays he’d probably have had publishers telling him to make the Count more likeable. Maybe they’d have got him to put Renfield on a diet of Haribo instead of insects too! Doctor Van Helsing would have tried to reason with Dracula about his addiction to blood and offered him two weeks in rehab instead of trying to drive a stake through his heart.
Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein would probably have ended up working in an NHS hospital and Dr Jekyll would have probably moved to private practice as there was more money in it.
Yes, you have to look at stories from different angles and yes you have to try and do something that’s never been done before (well, if you’ve got any pride about you as a writer you do) but that doesn’t mean you have to forsake the mythology of horror. So, to hammer home my point once again, I don’t think that traditional horror has lost its identity; I think that it’s been robbed of it. It’s wearing a mask just like the Phantom of the Opera used to. Remember him? You might not in ten years’ time.
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