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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

The Greater of Two Evils: Taking Sides in the Horror Genre

Let’s face it: the human animal has an obnoxious tendency to label things. Not all labels are created equal either. Some are less useful than others, and they're never going away. That doesn't mean we can't be thoughtful about their application. Hell, maybe even smart.

We're all familiar with many of the umbrella categories for fiction: western, romance, science fiction, humor, fantasy, magic realism, mystery, thriller, historical, horror, realism, military, and experimental.

I can live with those top-level genres if you can, but you’ll notice that one is conspicuously absent from the list. Yup, literary fiction. Why? Because literary is not a genre. It’s a compliment. And just as most of us don't go around giving ourselves undeserved compliments in our day-to-day interactions, we shouldn't be doing so when labeling our own fiction.

Especially pernicious is when the term literary is appended to one of the above genres. I’m seeing literary horror bandied about with some regularity these days, and it makes my skin crawl (not in the good way). In addition to all the pretension that the literary modifier carries, literary horror seems to describe fiction written by a horror writer who’s embarrassed to be a horror writer. What’s with the need to denigrate an entire genre in order to elevate yourself above it? You know what you’re really screaming to the world when you apply a label like that to yourself? You’re screaming, “I don't have any real faith in the ability of my work to earn—or in the ability of my readers to discern—literary merit; therefore, I’m going to tell you that my output is literary, and you can just take it on faith.”

Well, if that isn’t a dose of fuckery!

But enough with the preamble. What I really want to dig into here is the two ends of the horror spectrum. Let’s call them atmospheric and extreme. There are villains on both sides, of course. The writers of atmospheric horror often want us to believe that extreme horror is anything but, that what it lacks in psychological extremity, in fact, it tries desperately to make up for with detailed descriptions of evisceration and strings of curse words. The extremists, on the other hand, have been known to trash the other side for being timid and pretentious. Well, I write with both a feather quill and a razor blade, depending on the demands of a given story, so I care about these distinctions. Let’s see if we can dial both camps into focus.

For starters, what do they have in common. What is horror fiction trying to accomplish, in broad strokes? Douglas E. Winter famously proclaimed in his introduction to Prime Evil that horror isn’t a genre, that it’s an emotion. That’s a good starting point. At least it gets us thinking about a mode that writers slip into for certain types of scenes. Is Oliver Twist a horror novel? Of course not, but does Nancy’s brutal murder at the hands of Bill Sykes belong to the horror genre? Absolutely, because it taps into the emotion of horror. This happens over and over again in Dickens.

But I would argue that as a full-fledged literary genre, horror’s aim is a little more fine tuned than that. There’s a certain amount of gamesmanship in sustaining an emphasis on the terrifying and the horrific, and that’s what horror attempts to do. This is why the genre is better suited to short fiction than novels. To sustain a sense of dread over the course of 5,000 words or less is one thing. To spread it out across 90,000 or more is a tall order. Some folks can pull off a horror novel, obviously, but it’s not something to take lightly.

With a tale of terror, you have all the story requirements in play that exist for every genre, with the added expectation that you’re going to scare the pants off your readers. It seems to me that you can accomplish that in either a plodding or an explosive way. It’s all about how methodical you are, without coming across as overly methodical. Every word counts. Every action matters. Timing is everything, and nothing should be left to chance unless you’ve decided that it should be. If you’re dotting those i’s and crossing those t’s, I’ll be your passenger. I don’t care if you take me on a scenic drive through the mountains or a hair-raising adventure across the desert. As long as your commercial driver’s license is prominently displayed on the visor, I’m happy.

As for the idea that extreme horror eschews fiction’s responsibility to show us the truth about ourselves in favor of the gratuitous and the easy, it certainly can do that. But so can any type of story. A humorist can go for cheap laughs. A science fiction writer can settle for deep-space shoot-outs. A mystery writer can dump all of her energies into the clever solution of her plot and pay little attention to the development of her characters. A realist can all too easily forget about plot altogether.

What we’re dancing around is the harsh, implacable truth that writing of all styles, genres, languages, and lengths falls into one of two camps: good and bad. Maybe those are the only two labels that truly matter.

I miss the days when Clive Barker was active on social media. He once shared a piece of wise advice on Facebook that came from one of his early mentors, if I remember correctly. It reduced the requirements for creating good art to the three T’s: talent, tenacity, and taste. I believe Barker invited readers of the post to ruminate especially on that last T. At any rate, that’s what I’ll invite you to do here. The first two are pretty obvious. You need some raw material to work with, and you have to stick with it. But I suspect the last T has proven a stumbling block for many a wakeful dreamer. You might think it’s an easy pillar to rebuff with, “Well, who’s to tell me whether my taste is good or not?” The unvarnished truth, though, is that only you can take the temperature of your own taste, and you’d better have a good thermometer with plenty of mercury in it. You might still lie to yourself about the number next to the red line, but I’ll bet you’re going to dress for conditions in the end.

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