You’ve Got Your Horror In My Literature! You’ve Got Your Literature In My Horror!

I’m graduating with my MFA from the Stonecoast Writing Program in January (a fact that saddens me more with every passing week). As part of the graduation requirements, graduating students, during their last residency, give seminars on topics of their choosing. For instance, I’m giving a presentation on practical concerns of writing nonlinear literature, since I have a soft spot for any literature that disrupts the traditional beginning-middle-end structure of storytelling (not that I hate that framework, mind you; I just like it when anyone tries something different). The required reading/viewing for this presentation is, I think, quite relevant: the movie Memento, the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and the short story “The Propagation of Light in a Vacuum,” written by my thesis advisor James Patrick Kelly.

My friend and fellow writer, Ian Withrow, is giving a presentation about excavating personal fears as material and motivation for writing. He is primarily a writer of horror stories, so I think he’s well-qualified for this presentation. The title of the presentation – “Show Me Your Monsters, I’ll Show You Mine: How Fear Can Make You a Better Storyteller, and Why We’re All Horror Writers at Heart” – perfectly telegraphs his intentions. His required reading/viewing includes such obviously acknowledged horror standards as The Shining (in this case, Stephen King’s book) and The Devil’s Backbone. It also includes some unexpected choices, such as Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Nick Hornby’s “Otherwise Pandemonium.”

Norman Maclean: horror writer? Maybe...

His presentation raises a valuable point: there is more at work in horror stories than just scaring the daylights out of us, and the effects of horror stories are not strictly limited to horror stories. I know this well enough too. I will, and often do, openly acknowledge the influence horror writers like King and H.P. Lovecraft had on me, especially when I started out writing.

I bring all this up because our graduate presentations are coming up on us soon, but also because there’s been so much chatter about horror stories and their acceptance/entrance into mainstream literature lately. The literary magazine Granta just released a “horror” issue. The Daily Beast and writer Josh Dzieza recently discussed the sudden movement of “monsters…climbing up the literary hierarchy” thanks to novels such as Justin Cronin’s The Passage and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which deal with vampires and zombies, respectively. And, in a somewhat shameless bit of attention baiting, Glen Duncan compares the merging of literary writing and horror to “an intellectual dating a porn star” while reviewing the aforementioned Zone One. I’ll grit my teeth and avoid biting down on that one, especially since Charlie Jane Anders tore into it so articulately in a recent post for io9.

(DIGRESSION: I will say that Duncan is fond of creating strawmen out of genre readers, using an unflattering example of reader behavior to stand as the only example he provides of said readers. I will also take severe exception to his statement that “there isn’t a plot.” Um, yes, there is, as he clearly demonstrates by ably describing the events in the book. I seriously hate it when people read a story that doesn’t have a typical three-act structure and proceed to say it doesn’t have a plot. That’s like meeting someone who doesn’t have a bubbly, friendly, extroverted personality and saying they don’t have a personality.)

And then I found this post yesterday, from John Coulthart’s personal blog, where Coulthart reveals a surprising little fact about Tennessee Williams: his first published work as a writer came in that old stand-by of genre publishing, Weird Tales, back in 1928.

Another fun fact: Williams's story shared space with the very first Solomon Kane story written by Robert E. Howard.

It gets better: the title character in his story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” was probably named after a similar character used in two stories by H.P. Lovecraft. So, it’s entirely possible that the writer of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was a Lovecraft fanboy, for a brief time anyway.

What I’m coming around to is this: I’m a little baffled by how some people are all of a sudden realizing that horror writing and literary writing can overlap. Um, yeah. They can. Seriously. I’ve known this for awhile now. Most fans of horror stories have known this too, and that number includes “literary” writers like Cronin and Whitehead. I can’t help but laugh at how this is being treated like some sudden revelation on the parts of some critics and writers.

It’s useless to pretend that the best writers of horror stories haven’t already been writing “literary” works for a long time now. Even the Dzieza piece, which I find well-written and considerate overall, makes questionable statements like “it seems as if we’re currently in the midst of an explosion in literary horror.” This is, of course, in reference to The Passage and Zone One.

I have a pointed question to ask, though, and I really want to ask it: is it only “literary horror” if “literary” writers write it?

I believe Weird Tales may have already answered that question, eight decades ago, by placing Williams alongside Robert E. Howard and Robert Chambers. That question has been definitively answered by writers like Peter Straub, William Peter Blatty, and Clive Barker since then. And what about Cormac McCarthy? You just try reading some of his novels and telling me they’re not horrifying. Why doesn’t he get pegged as “literary horror”?

Like my friend Ian says, we’re all horror writers at heart. All writers, whether they realize it or not, tap into fundamental, terrifying fears at some point when they write (at the very least, they should). If you broaden the term “literary horror” to a definition like, say, “any well-written, entertaining story that still affects the reader in a noticeable manner by interacting with their fears and anxieties,” then “literary horror” might be the most prevalent genre ever. I just hope those who are now getting around to noticing this will eventually stop writing and thinking about noticing it and get down to actually reading some of the best stories ever written.

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4 responses to “You’ve Got Your Horror In My Literature! You’ve Got Your Literature In My Horror!

  1. jmmcdermott

    I’ve heard it said that horror isn’t a genre so much as it is a spice that can be applied across genre. I’ve also butted my head against genre definitions with my inalienable belief that steampunk is not a genre or a subgenre so much as it is disco or art design. In the end, I suspect the days to come will tear down genre walls, for so little of our time is spent finding books on bookstore shelves, and instead we find things because the scary smart algorithms of Amazon or Google suggest new things based on things we liked already according to what people like us liked all over the known, populated universe.

    • I would agree with your statement about horror being an effect that can be evoked in just about every genre. A few weeks back, I think I had a conversation with someone about whether horror sci-fi could exist. I brought up John Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien, and most notably H.P. Lovecraft’s writing as proof that there is such a thing as horror sci-fi. It’s all about the idea of scientific exploration and what it enables, in that context. A lot of sci-fi says something like “here’s the true science at the heart of things. Horror sci-fi says “here’s the true science at the heart of things, and it’s going to kill us.”

      As for genre definitions… yuck. You already know I tend to believe that genre walls are mostly BS, from an artistic standpoint. They’re only really useful from a marketing POV, and even then they can cause readers to receive damaging misconceptions of various works (I see this happening most with science fiction, which is woefully underread compared to other speculative genres now). You make a good point that as our own tastes and the procedures we use to define our tastes become more individualized, genre boundaries may cease to be relevant for marketing purposes. I already get more of my reading suggestions from like-minded friends that what bookstores try to sell me.

  2. I’ve never found it strange at all that Tennessee Williams published first in Weird Tales; a huge amount of his later work showed that wonderful gothic sensibility, all about cracking minds in crumbling houses among rickety relationships. It’s taken me years of trying to write “horror” to figure out that it’s the gothic I like more, the intersection of outre thinking with outre environments and situations. I like the internal monsters best of all, and I think TW did, too.

    • Well said, Will. I’m most fond of the internal monsters too, although I enjoy an especially creepy/mind-blowing boogeyman every now and then (it’s probably no accident that John Carpenter’s The Thing is my favorite horror movie). It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Williams published in Weird Tales. I think it’s an effective way of demonstrating just how interchangeable a lot of tropes and genre indicators are in pursuing the ultimate end of making people face what they fear or what they don’t know/should know. In his blog post, Coulthart openly ponders whether Williams read Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and sympathized with the isolated narrator, being a gay young man growing up in the 20s. I love that. I could also easily see Williams being influenced by someone like, say, Poe. In fact, thinking about it, the fingerprints of some of Poe’s stories (notably my favorite, “The Fall of the House of Usher”) are all over some of TW’s work.

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