Like many of the creatures that define the genre, horror refuses to die. Some might even say that it’s fighting tooth and nail from going gently into that good night. I for one am glad that horror has a seemingly endless supply of “staying power” with which it continues to creep into the literary world, finding new footholds and new ways to surprise and scare us.
Horror is arguably one of the older literary genres, spanning back to oral storytelling traditions and wicked little fairytales meant to scare naughty boys and girls into good behavior. However, it has since evolved to include literature from icons such as Mary Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King as well as newer, but no less talented, writers like Christopher Golden.
Golden is an award-winning, bestselling author who is well-known for his fiction, comics, and nonfiction as well as his editorial work on several anthologies.
He recently appeared at Boskone, the Boston based convention for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers, where he participated in several panels, including “Up with Monsters!” and “The Divide Between Mysteries and Fantasy-Horror.” The fast-paced and lively discussion covered a wide breadth of literary/horror topics, but the one-hour slot for each panel didn’t allow for deeper discussion on a few comments that were raised by panelists. So, Golden agreed to continue the discussion as well as to answer a few additional questions about the ever-evolving horror genre.
At the Boskone 2011 panel on horror literature, you mentioned that “horror” as a genre has shrunken in its pure form and that horror elements have bled widely into many other genres. How do you think this bleeding of horror elements into other genres has affected the development of horror literature in its pure form?
CG: Once upon a time there was no such thing as a “horror genre.” Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens wrote supernatural stories amongst many other kinds of tales. There were also, of course, writers who specialized in such things, but they wrote for the story, not for the “market” or the “category.”
Only in the last few decades of the 20th century did horror become a genre, something created by publishers for marketing purposes. The creation of the category had its pros and cons, one of the latter being that when horror was at its height, publishers wanted as much of it as they could get into bookstores. This meant that a lot of what was published was crap. The flooding of the market with horror of varying quality had the inevitable effect of dulling the audience’s taste for the genre, and horror started to wither. It never really recovered. In the past decade, there were signs of renewed vigor in the genre, but nothing compared to the height of its popularity.
What I think of as category horror exists now only in fragments. There are the superstars, but these days they write outside the category as often as they write in it. There are the trends, the way that zombies have become so hot in pop culture. And then there are the mid-list and underground horror writers. The mid-list is shrinking rapidly, month by month—case in point, the collapse of Leisure Books. There are fewer and fewer of those books on shelves. What I consider the underground—e-publishing and the small press—is also rapidly changing. The small press, the collector’s market, has seen massive contraction, but e-publishing has exploded. This is both good and bad, of course, and the reason for both is the same: anyone can “publish” a book. There are two potential outcomes I can see from this. First, it may have the same chilling effect that the horror boom had, since most of what’s going to be e-published is not going to be very good. Second, it may quickly revert us to the old model of horror, when writers wrote, and didn’t worry about category. I think the reality is going to be somewhere in between.
Regarding your question, I think a great many arguments would be waged over the phrase “horror in its pure form,” and what that means. But I see horror fiction everywhere. It’s huge in the thriller market, thanks to writers like Preston & Child and John Connolly, never mind massive genre books like The Passage by Justin Cronin and The Terror by Dan Simmons, both of which are horror masquerading as mainstream fiction. Horror has bled into so many other genres, creating paranormal romance out of romance, urban fantasy out of fantasy, and showing up in the humor of Christopher Moore, and a thousand other places. So, while “category horror” may be an endangered species, other than online, there’s still plenty of horror—pure or spliced—to be found.
Why do you think horror blended with other genres has become increasingly popular? Do you have any examples of stories that you think do an especially good job blending genres with horror?
CG: The first that comes to mind is the wonderful Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. The books are funny, romantic and fantastical, but they’re definitely also horror novels. I mentioned The Terror by Dan Simmons. Tom Sniegoski’s Remy Chandler series has an angel private investigator. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast series includes a number of books that are out and out horror, but the books are ostensibly thrillers. There are a million examples. For me, it echoes something Robert McCammon said many years ago in discussing the versatility of horror. The gist was that you can write about ANYTHING in the context of a horror story—love and hate, family, work, regret, romance, sex, grief, humor, youth and old age…anything.
You also mentioned that in a mystery the answer is the solution, but in horror the answer is the problem. Could you expand a little more on the idea that “the answer is the problem” in horror?
CG: Most horror, particularly of the supernatural variety, is also about a mystery of some kind, or at the very least revolves around some outside catalyst negatively impacting the protagonists to create the “horror” in question. My point was that, in a mystery, when you get the answer, the story has reached its climax. In horror, more often than not, figuring out the answer to the mystery is NOT a solution, but the next step toward confronting or surviving the horror. In horror, the answer to the question “who or what is responsible for all of this?” leads to more horror.
A panelist mentioned that horror is emotion and that readers identify most with the person suffering the most. Following this train of thought, the antagonist within a horror story has often gone through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering to become the “monster” of the story. Do you think it’s possible for the monster to steal the sympathy of the reader or viewer? Do you have any favorite examples of how this has been done successfully?
CG: I should first note that the monster is not always the antagonist. I’ve edited an entire anthology of stories in which the monster is the sympathetic character, and usually the protagonist as well. The Monster’s Corner will be out in October from St. Martin’s Press. But if we’re strictly talking about true antagonists who end up with the audience’s sympathy, no one has ever done it as well as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. The novel begins with the doctor as protagonist, but by the time the story has concluded it is impossible not to think of the monster as the innocent and the true protagonist.
Regarding his own writing process, Joe Hill said, “I’ve got to hurt them in the first paragraph.” In your own work, do you hurt your characters “in the first paragraph?” How do you think this statement translates between a short story and a novel?
CG: Maybe Joe is more of a sadist than I am. 🙂 I tend to want to spend a little time making the reader love my characters before I hurt or kill them. Wait, maybe that makes ME more of a sadist. In both short stories and novels, I think you want to caress the audience a little before you stab them in the heart. *evil grin*
One of the other panelists commented that heroes are heroes because we never see the collateral damage. In a novel such as I Am Legend, where the collateral damage is seen, how does the above statement reflect upon a hero like Robert Neville? What about Buffy or Harry Potter?
CG: I disagree with the notion entirely—at least as far as it extends to heroes in general. I believe during the panel the reference was made specifically to comic book heroes, and was partially made in jest. A real hero, in life or in fiction, is one who does what must be done, and needs no other reason. Comics tend not to show us the collateral damage of a battle between Superman and some villain throwing each other through office buildings, etc., so I see where that applies. But not all writers present Superman so simply.
A real hero will gauge the pros and cons of the situation and do his or her best. Sometimes there WILL be collateral damage, but even greater loss is avoided by the hero’s actions…or the hero believes this will be the result of those actions. In my own fiction, a recurring theme—almost a constant theme—is the idea that “everything costs,” that victory can’t be achieved without some loss.
Of all the evil fiends, creatures, and monsters that have been dreamt into being, which ones scare you the most and why? Do you have a favorite?
CG: It’s not often that I’m scared by fiction, either in print or on screen. Unnerved, perhaps, but not scared. When I saw the first Nightmare on Elm Street, back in high school, that scared me. The first time I saw The Exorcist…a video tape, around the same time…it unnerved me, but I wouldn’t say I was scared. The most recent horror movie that actually scared me was probably The Descent. In fiction, I read a lot of short stories when I was younger that scared but, but I honestly can’t remember the last thing that I read that scared me. Wait, that’s not entirely true. Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark is genuinely scary. It’s batshit crazy, too, but it creeped me the hell out.
What was the first scary book, movie, or story that you remember truly frightening you? Why do you think it succeeded so well? If you had never experienced that story, how do you think it would affect you today?
CG: When I was seven years old, I sat on our enclosed porch and watched James Whale’s Frankenstein on a tiny black and white TV. When the monster and the little girl are playing she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not and they run out of flower petals, and he throws her in the lake, I cried. It terrified me to see a moment of peace and happiness turn into such tragedy and horror, and the horror was both hers AND his. His panic when he seems to realize what he’s done, but doesn’t know what to do about it…I just rewatched the scene on YouTube and it kills me. I couldn’t say whether I’d be different if I’d never experienced that moment, but I’d be poorer for it, both as a person and as a writer.
Given that monsters have been so successfully romanticized in contemporary literature, do you think they can ever be scary again?
CG: Sure. They’re scary now, if you find the right book. Go and read Dan Simmons’ The Terror. And there are plenty of others, if you look.
As an author, what is it that draws you into writing stories that dwell on the darker side of fiction?
CG: It’s just how I’m wired. Part of it, though, is pure wish fulfillment, but not in the way you think. I want to believe in some kind of afterlife, in the survival of the spirit, and if I can believe in demons and ghosts, even just for a minute, then for that same minute, I can believe that this world is not all there is.
Dark fiction is also a fantastic way for both writer and reader to experience real catharsis, to approach our deepest fears without actually having to experience them, and examine those fears. Sometimes, it’s also a way to work through our feelings about fears that have come true, and come to terms with the darkness.
OK, let’s get serious. What is it really that goes “bump” in the night?
CG: It’s me, Erin. Look under the bed. I’m there. 🙂
Oh, boy. I think it’s time to end this interview before I find out why my closet door doesn’t like to stay closed. Thanks, Chris! Gotta go…
CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN is the award-winning, bestselling author of such novels as The Myth Hunters, Wildwood Road, The Boys Are Back in Town, The Ferryman, Strangewood, Of Saints and Shadows, and (with Tim Lebbon) The Map of Moments. He has also written books for teens and young adults, including Poison Ink, Soulless, and the thriller series Body of Evidence, honored by the New York Public Library and chosen as one of YALSA’s Best Books for Young Readers.
Upcoming teen novels include a new series of hardcover YA fantasy novels co-authored with Tim Lebbon and entitled The Secret Journeys of Jack London. As an editor, he has worked on the short story anthologies The New Dead and British Invasion, among others, and has also written and co-written comic books, video games, screenplays, the online animated series Ghosts of Albion (with Amber Benson) and a network television pilot.
Golden was born and raised in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his family. His original novels have been published in fourteen languages in countries around the world.