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 

No comments:

Post a Comment