Thoughts on Horror and Other Matters Literary

A couple of posts have caused a minor kerfuffle online as to the ‘state of health’ of horror fiction, this here from Simon Marshall-Jones and Adrian Chamberlin’s response here. Both men make some good points, but I find myself in the cautiously optimistic camp and more in agreement with Adrian than Simon.

Of course there’s something to be said for promoting the most original and inventive work within a genre, as against the cliched and stereotypical material. And attempts to reach out to non-horror readers and sing the literary merits of our genre are, needless to say, welcome. There may even be a thoughtful article waiting to be written on the subject of the influx of vampire/zombie novels and whether or not this is a good thing for the genre in the long term.

Simon’s post attempts to do all of those things, but too little and too late in the wake of an ill-judged title and setting out a ‘genre cleansing’ agenda in its opening phase. The implication here seems to be that writers should stop writing what they wish (be it for commercial or creative reasons) and readers should stop seeking out work they enjoy, and instead we should all start focusing on the kind of work that will win us the approval of the literary snobs. It comes over as slightly patronising.

Yes, I’m sure that’s not what Simon intended, and he draws back from this opening somewhat and mounts a better argument later in the article, but by this point I suspect he will already have lost the attention of the very people he needs to convince, and at the end of the day only those who are already completely tired of the vampire and zombie tropes will be nodding their heads in agreement, while the rest will have got their backs up and be ready to fight tooth and nail for what they want to write/read.

It was a missed opportunity.

More generally, I think it is a mistake to credit the vampire and zombie tropes with responsibility for any perceived lack of literary merit in horror fiction. If we declare a moratorium on vampire and zombie stories tomorrow, the problem won’t go away. The writers Simon has in his aim won’t stop producing what he considers crap, they’ll just move on and write about something else, latch on to some other monster du jour to use as a template. And they’ll almost certainly believe that they’re breaking new ground in doing so.

I also don’t feel there’s much point taking the literary mainstream into account in our calculations. The literati always rig the game in their favour. While genre fiction is defined by its themes and/or the emotional responses it strives to create, for the literary mainstream quality is the governing factor – we get to keep all our bath water along with the babies, and are often judged by it, while for the literati those who are found wanting are quickly shuffled off into the sex and shopping aisle, or the chicklit annex, like some elderly relative with incontinence problems who has to be kept out of sight when the vicar pops round for afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches.

If the literary snobs were to recognise the merits of, for example, Peter Straub’s prose, then I fear it wouldn’t be a case of their discovering ‘a good horror writer’ so much as marvelling that ‘a good writer works in the horror field’. For the literary snobs, horror is never going to be good enough I’m afraid, or any genre for that matter.

Fortunately the snobs are in the minority, albeit a vociferious one.

The vast majority of people who enjoy good literature are aware of the virtues of genre work and don’t make such piddling distinctions. That’s as true of writers as it is of readers. Several of the people trying to climb on the horror bandwagon come with a fine literary pedigree – Justin Cronin does vampires; Glen Duncan does werewolves; Colson Whitehead does zombies; Jeanette Winterson and Helen Dunmore are writing for Hammer. They want to play with our toys, even if they are somewhat shopworn and sticky with blood. And I suspect that trend will continue.

At the moment my TBR pile is over a hundred books, and of those there are something like fifteen where zombies and vampires are part of the mix. I don’t know if that constitutes a deluge or not, and I’m sure that some of them won’t be very good. On the other hand there are titles by David Moody, Cherie Priest, Mira Grant, Chuck Wendig, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan and Colson Whitehead, so I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be all bad, and casting the net wider still I see Titan are reissuing Kim Newman’s Dracula books, Simon Clark returns to the world of Vampyrrhic with his next novel, Stephen Jones has just released another Zombie Apocalypse mosaic novel and later in the year has a book on vampire films and TV shows slated for release.

Too many vampire and zombie novels?

Well, maybe. It’s an easy claim to make, and one many of us will agree with in the abstract, but when we come down to naming names and singling out offenders I suspect we won’t agree at all.

So, if you’re going to make that claim, first define ‘too many’, and then tell me which titles you would like to see culled.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Thoughts on Horror and Other Matters Literary

  1. Ray Cluley says:

    It’s that old chestnut of how a story is defined by others, to an extent. A while ago, if someone had simply said “hey, wanna read a new vampire novel?” I’d have probably said “no thank you, I’ve other books I’d rather read” (or words to that effect, maybe “bite me” if I was being witty). However, if they’d said “Wanna read a great story about alienation and growing up and friendship, set somewhere a bit different, a translation by the way, oh and there’s a vampire in it” I’d have said “sounds good – gimme that copy of Let the Right One In”. Okay, bit narrow minded of me to have said no thanks originally perhaps, but certain ‘ingredients’ of horror fiction tend to become a type of shorthand, often unfairly, for what the text will contain as a whole. Vampire = teeny sparkly angst or brooding immortal stuff or superhero style adventure, etc. Only because that’s a big part of the current market. Though of course there are plenty of good original takes out there.

    However, some good can come of the ‘deluge’. If I see a student of mine reading Twilight or some such, I recommend other ‘vampire’ stories they might like, and often they do, and often they move on to other books by the author, and so on. I also mention the magazine and chapbook market that so many young’ns are unaware of. If it was vamps and other dead things that got them there, all well and good. If they stick to what they like, well that’s okay too, at least they’re reading.

    Interesting what you say about Cronin, Pete. I recently finished it and it was a struggle. I thought it was okay, but jumping on a bandwagon seemed to mean a lot of stereotypes and cliches, a bit of a tick-box exercise in places – I enjoyed it enough when reading, but was never in a rush to pick it up.

    • petertennant says:

      Hi Ray

      I pretty much agree with that. I think most of the current fad, for vampires at least, is more correctly categorised as paranormal romance. Some people may get seduced into horror, and if so that’s a good thing; and if not, well we probably wouldn’t have got them as readers anyway. In general terms, vampires have always been big since Rice ‘reformed’ them, while I’d say the success of “World War Z” made zombies commercially appealing. But, as Stephen Jones said in the interview he did for BS, these things come and go. Horror remains.

      About Cronin, I haven’t read “The Passage”, was simply using that as an example of a ‘literary’ writer crossing over to the dark side. Opinion seems to be divided. I’ve heard several people express similar sentiments to you, and others being very positive.

      The convertee I’m most enthused by is Glen Duncan. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of his novels, reviewed one of them and maybe both, for the old TTA, but since he stopped writing ‘literature’ his publishers have stopped sending me review copies. Go figure.

  2. DarkEva says:

    Having read all 3 articles on the matter recently, yours included, I think your piece is a great balance between Adrian and Simon’s pieces. With the former, I found myself thinking “Not another ‘the death of horror’ piece, even though some of the points were good, but with Adrian’s piece, I agreed far more, because ultimately, although there is a huge market for the cliched, formulaic subject matter in horror and it seems like everyone and their dog is doing post-apocalyptic zombie fiction or trying to pass off sparkly vampires as “horror,” and you’re absolutely right about identifying that literary snobs would say of Peter Straub not that he’s a good horror writer, but that he’s a good writer who happens to write some stuff in the horror genre. It’s like they’re not willing to accept that horror can be literary and challenging. I think we have some of the best modern writers of horror fiction now in this new crop of rising stars like Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Ed Kurtz, John Palisano, and others who, although they’ve been writing for a long time, have only recently come out with their first novel, like Michael Rowe, and the veterans/old guard continue to produce excellent work. Every writer has hits and misses, old or new, but I think that there’s some really original stuff out there, horror fans just have to dig a little deeper. Strong title awareness within the community is one thing, but in order for it to spill outside, a horror novel needs to have a wider appeal than just a slice or a niche segment of horror fans that enjoy a particular kind of horror, like splatterpunk. Anywho, just my two cents–great piece!


    • petertennant says:

      Hi Eva

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I thinks there’s plenty of depth to the horror field at the moment, from stuff that’s produced simply to entertain by climbing on the bandwagon of whatever is currently fashionable through to work that, in literary terms, can stand alongside the finest the mainstream has to offer, with all points in-between. It’s a good time to read horror. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of crap, but then, the crap is always with you.

      I’ve heard of but not read any of the writers you mention. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

  3. DarkEva says:

    Hi Peter,
    I agree–although there is a lot of crap in the field, there’s also a lot of good stuff if people just dig deep a bit further, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the writers I mentioned–they’re the future of the genre imho.


  4. Pingback: 5 Must Read Horror Articles » This Is Horror

  5. Pingback: Darkeva’s Dark Discoveries Vol. 1 | Darkeva's Dark Delights

  6. DarkEva says:

    Hi Peter,
    I also mentioned you in my blog’s new feature, Darkeva’s Dark Discoveries, with reference to this post; you can check it out here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s