The Horror Genre as Haunted House

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

I’ve got an analogy for you about the current state of the horror genre. Bear in mind that I’m only addressing the printed word here, rather than movies and television – that’s a different kettle of fish – and bear in mind that my analogies do tend to run away with me.

Here goes: the horror genre is a haunted house. It’s difficult to say how old the place is, but the foundations seem to be 19th Century. It’s a big rambling old boarding house, with many different tenants, sitting comfortably between Fantasy-SF Towers and Cryme Apartments. A bunch of new dwellers moved in during the late 1970s and early ’80s, bringing a glamourous air and lots of money; the house got a new lick of paint then, and the windows got double-glazing.

But oh, how times have changed. The Horror House is one of the least appealing on the street – while Fantasy-SF Towers just gets higher and higher, and Cryme Apartments still lures people in, the Horror House has fallen into decline. The paintwork is peeling, the gutters are full of leaves, the rats have moved in and there’s moss growing on the windows. Even those lunatic ol’ timers in the Western shack have managed to get a new lick of paint on their dwelling, and the Romance Boutique is doing a roaring trade.

If anyone new has moved into the Horror House lately, I’ve not noticed. (Rumours that Anita Blake had moved in proved unfounded – she really lives in a flat above the Romance Boutique and rents a room in the Horror House to keep her stuff). Some of the older tenants have moved out, or at least aren’t spending so much time there – that nice Mr King seems to spend more time in Fantasy Towers and the SF Warehouse these days, and can even be seen down at General Fiction’s mansion. Others have stayed where they are, stuck in their old ruts, and are rattling around alone in the Horror House, some of them bloated and some of them starved, some of them still working and some of them lounging around, unemployed and unwanted. Occasionally a light will be seen at a window, a noise will emerge from an open door, but nowadays little emerges from the house except sewage. It’s a shame: I used to enjoy visiting the Horror House, but I don’t now that many of the tenants these days, and which of them are worth spending time with is anyone’s guess.

The horror genre is in the doldrums these days. Stroll into any bookstore and the horror section, if present, will almost certainly be smaller than fantasy/SF, romance, crime, and all the other niches books get crammed into. And what will you find there? Piles of Anne Rice, heaps of Dean Koontz, a terrifying mountain of Stephen King and a generous sprinkling of Herberts, Barkers, Straubs and Hamiltons. I can name hardly any big-name horror authors to come onto the scene in recent years aside from Laurell Hamilton, whose Anita Blake novels have enjoyed a curious evolution from horror to romance to softcore erotica.

There’s a vicious circle at work, of course. It’s far, far too easy to classify a horror novel as being not-horror, and – what with all these other factors at work – it really doesn’t make sense not to. Is the source of the terror in your story a serial killer? Call it crime fiction, it’ll sell better. Is it some supernatural force, an occult terror, a psychic phenomenon or an intervention by aliens? Fantasy and SF are simply more popular these days. With pretty every other genre you could care to mention raking in more cash, readers, and critical acclaim than horror these days, there’s next-to-no reason to pitch your book as a horror novel. There’s a lot of truth in the idea that the horror boom of the late 1970s and early 80s was a mere blip, caused by the arrival of Stephen King on the scene, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that – see how the genre has declined now that King has a) begun to be repositioned outside of the genre and b) has suffered a serious decline in the quality of his output.

Let’s take a quick look at It, cited by many as the point when King jumped the shark. Written at the height of his high-living cocaine-sniffing 80s lifestyle, the book contains a whole bunch of themes – a shapeshifting horror with an unfeasibly long lifespan which preys on human fear death, a group of friends bound together by traumatic events much earlier in their life, sinister goings-on behind a small-town facade on the East Coast, and a wide cast of lovingly-described characters who are decimated over the course of the novel – which are not only very familiar from King’s earlier work, but in a good many cases were lifted directly from Ghost Story by Peter Straub.

Published in 1979 – a good 7 years before It hit the bookshelves – Ghost Story centres on the Chowder Society, a small group of old men who get together and scare each other with ghost stories. Sure enough, soon elements of their ghost stories start haunting them in real life, and an escalating spiral of violence seems to have been initiated by their dredging up of old memories. They invite in Don Wanderley, a self-insertion horror novelist whose past experiences prove to have unsuspected connections with the problem at hand, and it soon turns out that apparently-unrelated events in the main characters’ lives were the doing of a sinister race of shapeshifters who prey on human fear and death. Lots of people die, sinister stuff happens, the classic King technique of painstakingly describing the past and emotions and circumstances and attitudes of minor characters just before they are killed horribly in order to maximise the impact of their deaths upon the reader is competantly deployed.

Which isn’t to say this is a second-rate King imitation. In fact, I’d say it’s the best Stephen King novel which wasn’t actually written by the man himself. While the book does go on for too long – by the end the horror is so over-analysed it’s no longer scary (hey! Another King trope!) – there are no wasted scenes. Pretty much every event that happens in the novel ends up becoming an omen of a future atrocity.

Neatly, the story begins with Don Wanderley – our author’s erstwhile avatar within the book – kidnapping a young child intending to kill her. By the end of the novel, we understand perfectly why he’s done that and why it is wholly necessary that the kid should die. Whether Straub intended this sly comment on how a horror story can convince us to accept grotesque and socially-unacceptable behaviour on the part of the protagonists because there are some things which the authorities Simply Can’t Handle or not is debatable, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it did. That’s what raises Ghost Story from being just another ghost story – it’s a study of why we like horror novels in the first place, and asks whether we tell these stories to reinforce our prejudices or to give us the courage to reach out to the unknown.

Meanwhile, horror itself blunders on, the afficionados respecting the work Straub has done with Ghost Story but not necessarily learning its lessons. I have no idea whether the genre will pull itself together, although there is one thing I’d like to see the publishers try. The Fantasy/Crime/SF Masterworks series from Millennium are excellent reprints of major works from their respective genres in a nice, easy-to-recognise formats; you know when you start reading one that even if it isn’t your personal cup of tea, it will at least be somebody’s. My main problem with browsing the horror bookshelves these days is that I have no idea which books are actually good; the same is not true for Crime, SF and Fantasy, genres in which the Masterworks series – and similar offerings from other publishers – have provided convenient maps of their respective fields. Maybe it’s time for a similar one for horror. I’d nominate Ghost Story for inclusion, of course.

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5 thoughts on “The Horror Genre as Haunted House

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