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.