Friday, January 6, 2017

What’s wrong with contemporary horror fiction?

This was the question that a reader of this blog recently posed to me in an email:

Dear Ed:  

What do you think would account for the poor condition of horror fiction today?

Let’s begin with the premise: Is horror fiction really in such a bad state? 

The short answer is, yes, horror fiction is presently in a dark age, in the sense that its readership is extremely limited and probably shrinking. 

Horror fiction should be popular. Consider the incredible groundwork laid by Stephen King in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. Stephen King opened millions of readers to macabre fiction. He also introduced the genre to millions of would-be and aspiring writers

Stephen King should have launched a new golden age of horror fiction. 

During my youthful fascination with rock music in the 1980s, I recall reading interviews with musicians of that era. They almost unanimously cited Elvis and the Beatles as their inspirations. 

In other words, the classic rock of the 1950s and 1960s gave us the rock of subsequent decades. That’s the way it usually works. One breakthrough artist—or a group of them—becomes a cultural sensation, and inspires waves of imitators. 

A fair number of those imitators surpass the original artists, at least in attracting fans. When I was a kid, people were still listening to the Beatles. But there was a lot more buzz about Def Leppard and Bruce Springsteen. 

In the same way, horror writers who came along after Stephen King should now be outselling him, standing on his shoulders, so to speak. 

That isn't what has happened, of course. Forty years after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, the horror category is still characterized by booming sales for Stephen King, and lackluster to nonexistent sales for practically everyone else. Ask the average person on the street for the name of a popular horror writer, and they’ll all say, “Stephen King”. Unless they are personally immersed in the genre, they probably haven't even heard of the newer horror authors.

Don’t get me wrong: Stephen King is a great writer; but the Master of the Macabre will turn 70 this year. It should be time to pass the baton to a younger batch of writers. That time should have come long ago, in fact. Remember my rock music analogy. 

But that’s music, you say. Well, this is also what we see in crime, thriller, and spy fiction. The buzz is about the new writers—not the “classic” ones. 

Yes, readers of these categories still read the old masters: Raymond Chandler, Frederick Forsyth, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum. But the average crime/thriller/spy fiction reader is just as likely to be reading something by Michael Connelly, Barry Eisler, Vince Flynn, or Brad Thor. 

The writers of this latter group are all authors who have “broken in” in recent decades. Many of these writers are still in their forties, and a handful are only in their thirties (young as bestselling authors go). 

Moreover, in the categories of crime, thriller, and spy fiction, newer writers are finding a wide readership. Visit the book section of your local grocery store. You’ll find lots of crime, thriller, and spy fiction titles by writers who no one had heard of when Bill Clinton was first elected president. 

But you won’t find many horror titles in the grocery store at all…not unless the name “Stephen King” is on the book cover.

Why is this? Why is the horror market so skewed toward one writer—and his predecessors? (H.P. Lovecraft, a contemporary of Hemingway who died in 1937, has a larger fan base than any horror writer who has come along in recent years.)

Well, have you read some of the horror being written and published in recent years? While there are exceptions, most non-Stephen King horror fiction relies on the following tropes:

  • Sadistic, fetishized, and often pointless violence.
  • Unlikable, unsympathetic characters.
  • A focus on serial killers versus the supernatural/unexplained.
  • Deviant, or simply weird, sexual themes.

Consider the novels of Poppy Z. Brite. Her most popular novel, Exquisite Corpse, is the story of two gay serial killers (one of whom is a cannibal) who linger over the dismemberment of their victims. It is unreadable stuff, for the average person. Then there is Jack Ketchum’s Off Season, also about cannibalism. Or perhaps you’d prefer Richard Laymon’s The Cellar, a story about a sadistic, homicidal pedophile. 

What I have described above is the subgenre of horror known as splatterpunk. Splatterpunk fetishizes sadistic, drawn-out violence. Splatterpunk isn't big on character development. Splatterpunk is not so much written to scare or spook the reader, as to make the reader feel disgust, nausea, and perhaps depression. There is nothing uplifting here—and no real point to reading it.

Post-modern horror novelists have largely decided that they don’t want to write about the supernatural anymore, as that would imply making definitive statements about the nature of life, death, good, and evil. Horror fiction (the old school kind) posits a universe in which two absolutes—good and evil—battle for the fate of collective humanity and for individual souls. Needless to say, this is too quaint for many post-modern writers. So those writers who are drawn to dark themes either focus on sadism, or they go toward the opposite extreme—by transforming horror tropes into the no-longer-horror. (This is where all the romantic vampires and werewolves of the Twilight school come from.)

Horror author Brian Keene, a relative newcomer, has done better than most. Keene has written a handful of genuinely good supernatural-themed novels and novellas (Ghoul, Ghost Walk, The Last of the Albatwitches). But he, too, cannot resist the siren song of splatterpunk. His novels The Complex and Urban Gothic are lackluster, repetitive tales of really nasty things happening to mostly unlikable people.  

Short fiction used to be the ideal vehicle for the horror tale. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe wrote short fiction almost exclusively; and Stephen King’s short horror tales continue to delight readers. But beyond that, the horror short fiction scene is similarly dismal. I can’t claim to have read all the horror anthologies published in recent years, but I’ve read a lot of them. Most are unrelentingly depressing and nihilistic, and filled with protagonists who are unsympathetic. 

Back to Stephen King. Stephen King certainly racked up a body count when necessary. (He destroyed the world in The Stand, after all.) But vintage Stephen King novels all contained a.) redemption after the darkness, and b.) likable characters. 

Read any Stephen King novel published between Carrie (1974) and It (1986). These books comprise the decade, more or less, when Stephen King became a household name. You’ll find that King’s protagonists, while flawed like real human beings, are far cries from the gloomy, artificially “edgy” characters found in most contemporary horror fiction. 

You’ll also find that Stephen King used darkness (whether human or supernatural) as a foil for the better angels of humanity. He wasn't simply wallowing in sadistic violence, chopping up victims for the sake of chopping them up, telling the reader that everything and everyone is simply awful. Re-read the endings of The Stand, Cujo, or Christine. Stephen King doesn't hesitate to horrify the reader, but he depicts a fundamentally moral universe in his novels.

This is why Stephen King’s novels are so cathartic—and so universally appealing. He adheres to sound storytelling principles that transcend genre.

Any hack writer with a decent grasp of sentence structure can induce nausea. Little skill is required to depress readers or gross them out. 

It takes a master, on the other hand, to pit a sympathetic protagonist against the forces of darkness, within a complex, believable tale that ultimately leaves the reader feeling more hopeful, enlightened, or determined at the end. 

This is what Stephen King accomplished as a horror writer; and this is what the subsequent practitioners of horror fiction have largely failed to do.    

The result is the poor market reception of commercially published horror fiction—unless it was written by Stephen King.