I always joke about winning a Nobel Prize, and what I’ve realised as I get older is I particularly want the prize money. Only because it means I would have the financial freedom to continue writing. I’ve set my sights a whole lot lower recently, I just want to be published. The interesting journey has been where, exactly. Nothing has made me sweat more over the past couple of years than the question “so what do you write?” I am comfortable to say now, I write what they call “genre” fiction as if every other fiction has no genre. What I mean when I say genre fiction, is that I write horror, I write weird, I write speculative. In other words, I am never going to win a Nobel Prize.
It’s funny to see that on the success of the new film adaptation of It, the media is in a frenzy declaring a Stephen King renaissance. As if Stephen King could not quietly retire into the night and still be one of the most influential writers ever. As if we have somehow declared Stephen King to be “good” again. I am sure at this point Stephen King is beyond caring, sleeping on his pile of money, but still.
There’s this idea that horror is not good, not worthy. That it’s campy, badly-written, gory fare written for teenagers and the disturbed. More than any other genre, apart from maybe romance novels of the Mills & Boon variety, it is reviled, and perhaps worse, it is ignored. Science fiction escaped this concept by being viewed as intellectual. We have “hard” science fiction that deals with humanity’s future, which of course wraps itself up in politics and “makes a point.” Even in film, we view works such as Interstellar as masterpieces. Which they are. Works of fantasy have also experienced some form of credibility, with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones being a global success. The sheer page count of well-known works of fantasy give them a veneer of respectability, an intellectual feat to conquer. Tolkien and Lewis’ academic pedigrees have weathered better than the initial ridicule lodged against them.
Where is horror, then? This summer while travelling the West Coast of America we walked into a lot of bookshops. Having decided to focus particularly on horror for my last year of university, I paid close attention to the horror section. Some bookshops had Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy lumped together into one department. Often there was a Stephen King book displayed at the front of the store, labelled with “soon to be a major film”. Yet, horror standing on its own, as a genre? Never. The worst crime was a frequent one, no horror section at all. Horror books were spread out between science fiction and crime.
Back home, I visited Waterstone’s on Picadilly. It has a modest horror section, two bookcases compared to science fiction and fantasy taking up about twenty. On the other side of the floor, crime fiction occupies a vast space. My despair was finding that downstairs, in the new releases section, Stephen King is placed in science fiction. I cry.
Granted, genre classification is hard and it is argued only serves to sell books and place them in libraries. Yet we’ve embraced them as tribes. The thing about horror is I find when it does its job, that’s when people avoid it. “Oh I don’t read horror, it scares me.” Well, yes. That’s the whole point. These are people, however, who then flock to the crime section. What’s the difference? I thought about The Silence of The Lambs, often placed in horror, sometimes in crime. I tend to think of the Thomas Harris book as a crime procedural. The 1991 film is much of the same. Yet, when I think of the Bryan Fuller television adaptation Hannibal, I think of it as horror. It seems to come down to control. Crime tends to follow a formula that has worked well, and it ends with the crime’s solution. By the end of Silence of The Lambs, the killer is caught by Clarice Starling. Hannibal Lecter may be free, but we like him, so that’s okay. What Fuller presents in Hannibal is a world inhabited by the depraved, and sometimes they’re hidden among the very people who are supposed to protect us. Will Graham may catch a killer, but there’s another more awful one coming next episode, there’s one right behind him, and there may be one inside himself.
That seems to be too much for people to take. This idea that Michael Myers will always come back from the dead, that if there’s one ghost then clearly there’s more. That one day you’ll have to look into the eyes of your child and realise they are trying to bite your neck or eat your brains. This may turn people off, but I can’t think of anything more interesting.
I read a stupid article in The Guardian where the writer had noticed a spate of horror movies coming out that were focused on existential dread. They cited It Comes At Night, particularly. If the author had bothered to be interested in anything other than click bait, this is not the emergence of “post-horror” as they so gleefully classified it. There are plenty of Netflix films out in the past couple of years that do much of the same. The Invitation, Hush, Mercy, February, amongst others. What’s more, despite the bits we’ve chosen to add into our cultural lexicon, horror films in the past are not all pea-soup rotating heads and screaming housewives. The Exorcist is a profoundly depressing film about faith, with about 20 minutes dedicated to bed bouncing and cross-humping. There’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Cat People, Night of The Living Dead. You may think of Frankenstein and Dracula as campy scares and dark castles up on hills, but they deal with existential dread too. The fear of dying, immigration, homosexuality, desire.
It’s funny when books like Twilight and films like the 15th Paranormal Activity movie are held up as reasons why horror is not a great genre. Like there aren’t awful, self-indulged works of highbrow literature. Like you really enjoyed that four-hour art house movie about the playwright.
Ultimately, I guess it’s down to taste. I can’t force you to like horror. I don’t know that I’ll ever convince anyone that horror deserves a seat at the prestigious awards table. Nor do I particularly care. I want to chase that thread passed down by Shelley, Jackson, Rice, Barker, Brite, and King. After getting published, it’s a Stoker award I want on my shelf. A spooky boy can dream.