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from the March 1999 Locus Magazine

Dead and Buried

by Jay Russell

You can't swing an eviscerated cat in horror circles these days without hitting a severely depressed writer. There's nothing new in this, of course: horror fiction has been dragging its rotting corpse across the bottom of the commercial abyss for the better part of half a decade now. Publishers regard the label ''horror'' with the kind of fondness normally reserved for root canal treatments and visits to the in-laws; and editors, it seems, would sooner tear out and eat their own livers than read about same. A genre con just ain't complete without a ''Does Horror Have a Future?'' panel, and everybody has an opinion on how and why we got where we are, but nary a clue as to how to get out of the funk. Is it the fault of cowardly corporate publishers? Lazy hack writers? Jaded and unadventurous readers?

Hell, maybe it's just El Niño.

In the face of the collapse of the market for horror fiction, whoever may to be blame for it, I've heard two sentiments repeatedly expressed from several sources (mostly writers), both of which I understand, but neither of which I can entirely agree with.

The first view is a kind of plucky denial of reality that would do Bill Clinton proud (if such a thing is possible): Horror will never die, it just gets called other things, there are plenty of good writers and good writing around, the small press is where the action is, night is day, freedom is slavery. Etc. Now, there is some truth here (especially the freedom is slavery bit...): horror is indeed being published under other names and subsumed within other genres and sub-genres in order to avoid slapping the dreaded H-word anywhere on the cover of a book. Some of this writing is, indeed, very good, and several interesting writers have emerged during this period of commercial drought. Furthermore, there really is an active and adventurous small press movement taking chances on work which otherwise would never see print from the big names in New York. To be sure, a lot of small press product is dreadful - second and third-rate writing presented in a form you'd hesitate to use to line your bird cage for fear of insulting your canary - but at the same time, there are publishers like Mark Ziesing who achieve a standard in form and content that puts mainstream publishers to shame. And the simple fact remains that horror is an emotion so fundamental to the human condition - so elemental to our psyches - that the horrific will always feature in the creation of art, whether the specific form is a painting by Francis Bacon or a novel by Jonathan Carroll.

But so what? What does any of that have to do with the state of horror as a viable genre in contemporary publishing? When a writer as good as Joe R. Lansdale - and he's just one of many - leaves the field to write mysteries (terrific though they are), and when there is no professional magazine market for short horror fiction, and when a boom in Hollywood horror has no impact whatsoever on audiences' desire to read horror, and when a ''successful'' small press novel or collection sells (maybe) a thousand copies, and when a generation of R.L. Stine readers conspicuously do not graduate to picking up adult horror fiction, and when Stephen bloody King, who still totes up million-plus sales in hardback, has to be ''repositioned'' out of genre for his new book and publisher...

Catch my drift?

The second point of view offers a kind of response to this mournful kvetch. The drift of it, as I catch it, is that the decline of horror and winnowing out of writers from the field is actually a good thing (''Wish it into the cornfield, Anthony...''). In purely aesthetic terms, at least, it is desirable that many hacks who drifted into horror to cash in on the eighties boom have scurried off the sinking ship and cannon-balled back into the brackish waters from whence they came. The decline in popularity for the genre is thus seen a kind of ritual cleansing which will result in a vastly smaller, but qualitatively superior body of writing. Writers will be compelled to create work which is bold and exciting and innovative because there ain't no other way to get anyone to read the damn stuff.

As with the black-is-white protesters, I have some sympathy for this argument. Horror did become a stodgy, overly formulaic genre with too many writers churning out uninspired and unnecessary books. But for which genre or category of fiction is this not the case? To my mind, fantasy is not only dominated by dreadful and endlessly repetitive writing, it positively thrives on this condition! There is surely as much dreck on the science fiction shelves as on those say-do-you-have-a-horror-section racks. Ditto mysteries, romance, name it, there's a lot of crap out there. (Stop me before I invoke Sturgeon's Law!!)

But those other genres are just humming right along. Well, they're not six-feet under at any rate; there's not the same sense that agents would sooner kill their first-born than take on a book in the field. What is unfathomable to me is the notion that writers in any other genre would conceivably herald a decline in their field as a good thing. It's just plain crazy! I realize that there is a vast difference between aesthetic and commercial considerations of writing, but the two are not entirely separable. As writers - good writers - are compelled to move out of horror because no one will publish the stuff, the range of work will get thinner and the expectations and desires of the audience ever narrower. Horror will come to be seen by publishers as more and more of a specific, dogmatically defined thing with nothing permitted outside those strict limits, and by readers as a means to gratify a very particular and progressively less important literary need.

An analogy which seems apropos is between horror and westerns. It's not a perfect comparison, I freely grant, but there is something about the trajectory of the two genres over the past three decades which strikes me as informative, though the basis for it is rooted in film rather than prose. Horror and the western entered the sixties in similar aesthetic and commercial conditions: regarded as unworthy by critics and elitists, but beloved by audiences. Each genre was well-established to address specific cultural needs and mythic longings, and each faced a powerful shake-up in the societal Cuisinart of that decade. Both horror and western films went through a major revisionist phase - typified by the likes of Night of the Living Dead and The Wild Bunch - which rocked and subverted the foundations of the genres. The western effectively did not survive its revision; horror, on the other hand, positively thrived post-revision, both cinematically and subsequently in literature. Now, one can posit various arguments as to why this happened, and I don't have space to delve into all of them. One might suggest that the myths which fed the western could not survive the cynical, postmodern worldview which precisely empowered the new horror movement. Or it might be that horror is simply a more flexible genre, which refits itself to any cultural condition, whereas the western is so strictly defined that, like the musical, it simply ran out of gas. Or the whole boom in horror might well be explained by the arrival of Stephen King. I don't know.

What the recent decline in horror leads me to wonder, however, is: has horror finally arrived at the condition of the western? Was the post-King boom in horror merely a final, desperate ejaculation as the awareness of a final demise loomed? Has horror exhausted its mythic reserves in the same way that the western did? Although the odd western still gets made - and some, like Unforgiven, are among the best ever made - the genre on the whole is not thriving. Category western novels and stories are still published, of course, but they are hardly among the more exciting works in the bookstore, and are limited in their appeal and ambition in the exact way I have already discussed. (I admit I don't know, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that, King/Koontz/Rice notwithstanding, westerns outsell horror these days. Can anyone correct me? Please, please, someone correct me...) Is it not possible that the decline in horror fiction will lead the genre down the same lonesome and dusty trail as the western?

I surely hope that such is not the case; I don't think it is, but that may be more wishful thinking than objective consideration. Certainly there are twinklings of hope on the darkness of the horror horizon: brave editors like Ellen Datlow and Steve Jones; dedicated commentators and facilitators like Paula Guran with DarkEcho and Matt Schwartz at HorrorNet; inspiring writers like...

My temptation was to just end the essay with that ellipsis. I could easily name some names (thank the gods), but I don't think I will. Ask yourself who they might be; perhaps that's the best assessment of all as to the state of the art.

-Jay Russell

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.