Monday, April 27, 2015

The Horror of Modern Horror

I recently read a blog by the author Robert Dunbar on Goodreads (in the group Literary Darkness). He bemoans the present quality of the horror genre in literature. I quote:

"A glut of indistinguishable titles has already choked the horror genre once … and is well on its way to killing it again. (Homogeneity is not a virtue unless we’re talking milk.) Why is this so recurrent a menace? Other genres like Science Fiction, Mystery, Fantasy all have advanced in style and sophistication. That’s what sustains a genre’s growth. Why hasn’t Horror experienced similar development? Could it be that the genre’s essential conservatism -- all those plot arcs about destroying the dreaded "other" -- dictates perpetual mediocrity? Maybe reactionary art is just too much of an oxymoron to sustain?

I don’t want to believe this.

Last year, I had the most dismaying experience. I was moderating a panel at a con when a bunch of twenty-somethings in the audience started denouncing writers whose work they didn’t care for. The list included Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck in short everyone they’d ever heard of who wasn’t a pulp hack. But what I found really disturbing was all the people nodding in agreement. "Hemmingway can’t write at all" struck me as a memorable line. (In his heyday, Papa H may have been the most overestimated writer in the world. How strange that he’s now become one of the most underestimated.) Yet those kids all think of themselves as writers ... writers who read nothing but junk."

I share Robert's concern, and not just for the horror genre, but all arts in our culture. Here was my reply to his post:

What's disturbing is that our culture seems less and less able to recognize good art (this is mainly a matter of education and experiencing the work patiently). If that continues, eventually good art will be lost because fewer and fewer will support it (while praising mediocrity or worse) and fewer will create it.

The democratization of art is, in a way, a horrible thing, at least when it says, "What I like it just as good as what you like!" or "What I've made is just as good as what you've made!" in order that no one dares feel bad about themselves (nor does anyone learn anything). We are all created equal. That doesn't mean we stay equal in every aspect of life. Accomplishment is a real thing and hard-earned, and it should respected and recognized. Provincial snobbery is at least as ugly as the high society kind, and, it will eventually kill the arts.

People have become so narcissistic that they actually believe that just because they don't like something (and they will claim to not like something they haven't even experienced), then it's not good (or, it "sucks"). And, if they do like something, that means it's good. That is egotistical nonsense. I don't like the work of the musical artist Bjork, but I think she's incredibly talented. I would never say her music is bad. I just don't care for it. That's a personal preference. I can dislike it, and yet still recognize it as having quality, or being "good." I believe it is vital for the health of the arts for us to be able to distinguish between the two.

If the horror genre suffers especially from diminishing quality, it would be because of the attitude demonstrated by these young people at the convention. It is essential to read (and probably read mainly) outside your genre. Michael Moorcock has said that if you want to write good fantasy, you should read everything but that genre. In this way, you avoid the tropes of that genre and bring something fresh and original to it. Otherwise, the stories suffer from a kind of inbreeding. Everyone copying everyone else, the same thing being regurgitated. I read a lot of older gothic horror, but I don't read much modern horror. Of the few modern stories I have read, I was taken aback by the low quality of writing and the reliance on genre tropes (like gore used for shock purposes). People should be trying to write a story as well as The Haunting of Hill House, or Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken, or The Fall of the House of Usher, by Poe. THAT should be the bar. Shoot for the stars and you might reach the moon. But you won't get there (as a writer) just  by reading the latest issue of a popular horror title. You have to go back further, dig deeper (and wider, writing is not the only thing that can inspire good writing). Otherwise, your work will seem shallow and derivative. What you write will be a horror, but not in the way you intended.

I will close with this significant little anecdote. I was at a horror bookstore in Burbank about two years ago. I asked the owner why he didn't carry any titles by Fritz Leiber. He said Fritz Leiber wasn't really a horror author. FRITZ LEIBER. The author who (deservedly) won the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award. This store manager/owner was not twenty-something. He was at least middle-aged.

What does THAT tell you?

"Fritz Leiber was the father of modern supernatural horror fiction, and its greatest master. I'll stake my reputation on the belief that once “Smoke Ghost” was published, the field could never be the same again." - Ramsey Campbell 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Love Your Enemies Or They'll Crash Your Party

The heisting of the Hugo Awards by a group of right-wing reactionaries has made the mainstream news. Here's the Salon article.

Many things are being said about this and about the people that ruined the integrity of the Hugo Awards this time around. But once the judgment and the finger pointing and the name calling has stopped, who personally are these people? They are obviously people who feel they are being left behind, neglected, misunderstood, and finally demonized.

 Obviously, these guys are acting like cretins. But, does anyone actually care about them, or wonder what's making them so bitter and spiteful? I think we're too quick to villainize and ostracize people who go against popular cultural opinion and who represent unsavory opinions. When we do this, those people are strengthened in their belief that they are victimized outsiders. And then they draw others on the fringes, people who might have been on the fence, to their cause. A strong reaction always creates an opposite energy.

If we actually sought to understand their concerns and show some interest in them as people on a personal level, half of the people in their "cause" would drop out and most of the rest would feel ridiculous. To clarify, I'm talking about showing a personal interest in people, not approving certain behaviors. That "love the sinner, not the sin" actually makes sense, even if it is only given lip service by fundamentalists. Jesus said, "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you" for a reason. And it wasn't because he was a wimp. He understood how reality works.

The vast majority of people want to belong to the human community. If they can't find it with the majority, they will turn to a minority, whether that minority represents a good cause, or, as in this case, a really shitty one. There will always be a few bitter people that just want to ruin everything for everyone else. But those people are a tiny minority, and they can only ruin our party if we let them.

Robert Zoltan

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sword and Sorcery versus High Fantasy

Just read an interesting fact (that Tolkien liked Robert E. Howard) in a recent Amazing Stories article about the difference between High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. Summed up well here by G. W. Thomas:

"In the final analysis, Sword & Sorcery and High Fantasy aren’t so very different. What has made them different at all is mere happenstance. Howard was an American Pulp writer, so therefore his Fantasy is short-story based and fast-paced. Tolkien wrote not for money and took an entire lifetime to craft one long tale. In spirit they are the same, Heroic Fantasy. In execution, tone and message, they differ as much as two writers should, each reflecting their own spirit. Lin Carter, in his book Imaginary Worlds, says that Tolkien had read Howard and liked him. This doesn’t surprise me at all. They were both inspired by the same sources of the fantastic and found their own ways of writing about it."

He also mentions that Sword and Sorcery tales have more to do with survival, and High Fantasy have more to do with redemption. Although I would agree this is often the case, it isn't always. Often the lines blur, and sometimes survival and redemption are one. Michael Moorcock's Elric saga (especially Stormbringer) has both High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery elements, and although very much about redemption, it is also about survival.

I enjoy them both, but I tend towards the stories of more down-to-earth people trying to survive AND find meaning and redemption, as opposed to a fantasy version of the lifestyles of the rich and famous (which much fantasy nowadays seems to be about). Thus I will always be more drawn to a title like Cugel the Clever than to Game of Thrones. Put into a modern setting, it would be like the difference between reading about someone struggling to start a small business as opposed to reading about the lives of the Kardashians.

But now, I'm straying into a different blog topic...

Wishing you survival and redemption,
Robert Zoltan

Friday, April 3, 2015

Too Much About Me

Here's a very incisive, interesting article called "Enough About Me" by Leslie Jamison  for the Atlantic, about what is sometimes (usually mistakenly) called "Confessional Writing." In our age of  narcissistic self exposure (especially on social media forums), how does the writer avoid this trap when writing supposedly autobiographical work? How does one maintain one's important solitude, as Rilke talked of in Letters to a Young Poet?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Forgotten Fathers of Modern Fantasy

Okay, I admit it. When it comes to artists and writers not receiving their due (and I'm not talking about financial compensation, don't even get me started on that), I feel much more like one of my author heroes, the angry pugnacious Harlan Ellison, than another one of my author heroes, the late great Fritz Leiber, who was said to be the consummate gentleman. I can't stand to think about Van Gogh dying from starvation and poverty as his brilliance was being ignored, while now they sell his paintings for millions of dollars. Such thoughts can make me sad, depressed, angry, even prone toward violence against inanimate objects.

Of course, it's a bit easier to take if the person has passed on, because mortal woes must be small potatoes in infinity. They are surely not upset about it anymore, why should I be?

First, I would like to do my part on keeping us honest. Whether good or bad, the past should not be forgotten, and should be given its due. If not, we learn nothing, repeat mistakes and never evolve. We live in a perpetually egoistic culture that thinks every time it shits it smells like roses and that it invented everything under the sun.

Second, and probably more importantly, out of love. We should love those who devoted their lives to perfecting their talents and sharing the harvest of that labor with the world.

I love many authors, but I will only mention those who are relevant to the fantasy adventure genre, because they are often overlooked and not given the credit they deserve for creating the genre that is now taken for granted.

Those authors are: Fritz Leiber (creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane) and Jack Vance (creator of the Dying Earth and Cugel the Clever). Of these three, Howard is the most well-known, though in truth, most mainstream audiences would only be aware of the name Conan (from the movie) as opposed to R. E. Howard.
Fritz Leiber, Jr.

In a recent blog by Charlie Jane Anders, 10 Authors Who Wrote Gritty, Realistic Fantasy Before George R.R. Martin, the titled list is given. Nowhere are listed the three authors that helped define the genre. The list only goes back as far as the fabulous Micheal Moorcock (who is considered part of the new wave after Leiber, Howard and Vance). This alone shows that something is amiss. Leiber, Howard and Vance were "gritty." As far as "realistic" goes, this is where the problem really arises. I believe the term that Anders really means to use is "modern." Each generation views as realistic those parts of daily life or those current cultural reactions, morals and emotions that it experiences in its time. That is what makes it "modern."

Robert E. Howard
I, personally, see nothing less "realistic" in the fantastic tales told by Leiber, Howard and Vance than those told by modern authors. There are points of some of the stories, especially by Howard, that seem dated by today's standards. However, who is to say that the behavior and concerns and reactions of the people in Howard's Cimmerian age are not "realistic." Were one to go back to ancient Persian times, it would seem completely unrealistic. Simply read a book of ancient history and half the events that happened and the way people acted do not seem "realistic." In fact, some of the things that actually happened are unbelievable.

If we judge Leiber, Howard and Vance by the term "modern," meaning what holds up now, I would still say that most of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and Jack Vance's Dying Earth tales hold up. They do not seem dated. (Yet, one must remember the market for whom stories are written. Leiber and Howard were writing for the pulps, which had a younger male audience, whereas the writers mentioned in Ander's blog are mass market books written for major publishers).

Jack Vance
So, I am understandably perturbed when these three great authors, the fathers of the genre (who strongly influenced that "modern" author,  George R. R. Martin, as he says in an interview) are completely ignored. Leiber himself coined the term "sword and sorcery" for what they were writing at the time. One hundred years from now, people will still be reading Leiber, Vance and Howard. I wonder how well the currently-praised "modern" authors will hold up in fifty or one hundred years time. No doubt most of that work will not seem "realistic" or "modern" anymore.

Raymond Feist called Fritz Leiber the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers.” But his influence goes much further than that. Michael Chabon, the Pullitzer-prize winning literary author, is a huge fan of Leiber's (he provides the afterward for a collection called Selected Stories: Fritz Leiber, Neil Gaiman provides the foreword), and said that he learned to write by reading Leiber's stories. His book, Gentleman of the Road, is a tribute to Leiber, as well as Dumas, Moorcock and others.

Without Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance, most of the current fantasy adventure authors (including the ones on Ander's blog list) would never have written the stories they wrote. It is impossible to not be influenced by these three, for they built the very foundations upon which the sword and sorcery genre stands.

Please, give them their due. It is the least they deserve from we who have inherited the legacy of their rich treasures.

Happy reading adventures!
Robert Zoltan

Addendum: Other authors were of course influential as well. I name Leiber, Howard and Vance as ones who had the most impact but are most overlooked. There are other greats, such as Poul Anderson (who I could actually name as a fourth—his work heavily influenced Michael Moorcock), Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. C. L. Moore (Catherine Moore), etc. (and of course Tolkien, although he is more "high fantasy," and needs no more credit). I recommend reading them as well if you are interested in the genre or the roots of the genre.

Recommended Reading:
Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Start with the award-winning story, "Ill Met in Lankhmar" from this volume.
Robert E. Howard: Many printings exist of his Conan stories. Start with the story "The Tower of the Elephant." Here's one volume:
Jack Vance: The Dying Earth. Ignore the completely inaccurate hard sci-fi cover art of this edition:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Past Future Is Now

Very imaginative. A blog by a guy who is pretending he lives in the 1960s and is reviewing books, movies, TV shows and science as if they are happening right now.