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Monday 9 September 2002

Tribal Stand

by Paula Guran


It finally hit me at one gathering of the horror tribe or another: the distressing realization that so few in our field still seek professionalism, a high level of achievement, legitimate credits, and to gain a sense of history — attributes that combine to set what we might call the Standard.

The Standard is simple. To paraphrase Andy Griffith in Hearts of the West: "You're a writer when a Writer says you're one." While this may sound exclusive or prejudicial, no Secret Masters or hierarchies or Star Chambers are involved. This merely acknowledges that tribal elders merit respect. Why? Because they were here before you, just might know a thing or two you don't, and if you sit next to them at the campfire and listen, you just might learn something.

It doesn't stop there, though. You can't just sit warming yourself by the flames and sucking in the smoke. You have to keep spinning out the yarns, smoothing out the spells, shaking up the spirits, seeking the shamanistic secrets, making "sacrifices" to become and to remain a Writer.

But in the horror tribe, the Standard is breaking down. If you're not affected by this already, you will be, and not in a positive manner. If you appreciate the efforts of the tribe, read on.

To understand what has happened, we need first to look at the recent history of horror literature and its makers.

***

Horror literature is certainly not a recent invention, nor is the horror novel anything new. But until the 1970s horror's principal published format was the short story (or novella). The novel as the dominant commercial form for horror literature came about during this period. Horror as a "genre" simply did not exist until about 30 years ago, and its emergence as a publishing market niche was not so much a literary development as the result of the success of several films based on novels. The novels themselves were also successful, but the film versions came out within such a short period of time that it would be difficult to say the books themselves were solely responsible for the upswing.

Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby was published in 1967 (perhaps the first horror novel to be a bona fide hardcover Top Ten bestseller) and released as a film in 1968; Fred Mustard Stewart's The Mephisto Waltz was published in 1969 and released as a film in 1971; Thomas Tryon's The Other was published in 1971 and released as a film 1972; and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist was unleashed as a film in 1973, two years after its book publication. (The latter two novels also made the hardcover bestseller lists.)

None of these novelists were writers of the weird previous to these publications. Three of the four dealt with Satanic possession and the supernatural theme of good versus evil. (The Other's horror is psychological and non-supernatural.) All were intellectually and culturally accessible and easy to define as "horror." They were wonderful, creepy "yarns" and highly entertaining. Debatable as these novels may have been in regard to literary merit, they worked beautifully as movies.

The final brick in the foundation of horror-as-a-marketable-commodity was Carrie, a novella padded out to novel length by unknown writer Stephen King. Published in spring of 1974, its movie version was released in 1976. His novel 'Salem's Lot came out in 1975 and became a TV movie in 1979, the same year King first reached hardcover bestseller status (with The Dead Zone).

Suddenly, it seemed to be a seller's market for scary stories, and on the heels of a genre apparently easy to replicate, came formula. Other writers said, "Good heavens! I can do that!" — and did, or tried.

A few — like Peter Straub — understood horror's long rich literary history. Knew of horror's ability to affect people emotionally, transform them, make them think. Knew that horror can be both profound and entertaining.

As horror became a commercial entity, a marketing niche, some of the books published still possessed enough depth and validity for aficionados to appreciate the difference. After all, most of them had done the basic coursework. But during horror's boom years (particularly in the 1980s) much published horror was not written as literature. Instead, it was produced to feed market demand, by publishing entities reluctant to reward originality, who preferred their product definable and formulaic.

Most normal readers — in the real world — saw horror as a tacky little subgenre popular primarily with teenagers, and ineligible for consideration as literature, or for that matter, "serious" reading. And, truth be told, probably 90% of what was published as horror did not deserve to be called anything other than trash. Still, there was a decent living to be made by hacks willing to churn out formula fiction, with the ever-present brass ring of a fluke bestseller, or better yet, a movie sale in the post-Exorcist boom times.

The new demand meant horror writing — for better or worse — began to be seen as a "profession." That possibility of a "decent living," the chance at the brass ring, was made possible by the emergence of the long form. Short fiction — of any kind — was no way to make a living then any more than it is now. (Unless you're Ray Bradbury who — despite his mastery of the short form — is still best known for his novels Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes). For professional writers, it was something written mostly as a labor of love in-between novels or scripts or time-outs from a day job that paid the mortgage. When horror novels became a hot commodity, there was a chance — albeit slim — that a whole bunch of newcomers might explode upon the scene.

"How-to" books on writing horror began to spring up like weeds, a sure sign that it was bandwagon time. Taking an organizational cue from the Science Fiction Writers of America (founded in 1965, itself an imitation of the Mystery Writers of America, founded in 1945), the Horror Writers of America (originally H.O.W.L., for "Horror and Occult Writers League") incorporated in 1987. The de facto "professional convention" for horror enthusiasts had been the World Fantasy Cons; starting in 1990 a World Horror Convention was inaugurated.

So now you could join an organization of horror writers, attend horror writers' conferences, and write horror books yourself — books that might even get published. None of that automatically "made" you a Writer, since the Standard still applied.

As horror's boom began to go bust, many believed the "death of horror" would be its salvation. Karl Edward Wagner foresaw what he termed a survival of the fittest. He said, in 1994, "Maybe 90% of horror novels of the past decade are pointless, derivative crap, churned out by hacks who will now go back to writing romances, or by amateurs who have seen a dozen splatter films, read a Stephen King novel, and now want to write the same. It was a feeding frenzy of schlock publishers going for the current fad with no concern for quality nor any knowledge of the genre. Tough luck now for the twit who hopes to sell his novel about vampire cockroaches. Tougher luck for writers who do have something new to say, but have been lumped together with the garbage and discarded as no longer commercially viable. The good writers will hang in there and survive."

Sounds fair. But did it come to pass?

In 1998 Doug Winter said much the same in his essay/speech "The Pathos of Genre": "...that publishing category called horror died. It was not the 'death of horror,' but the death of a short-lived marketing construct that, although it wore the name of 'horror,' represented but a sideshow in the history of the literature... Great horror fiction is being published today; sometimes it wears other names, other faces, marking the fragmentation and meltdown of a sudden and ill-conceived thing that many publishers and writers foolishly believed could be called a genre. Probably the most welcome result is the departure of the bottom-feeders and lemmings, who will move along to writing the flavor of the new decade and allow the conscientious writers of the horrific to flourish."

Novelist Dan Simmons said in a February 2002 interview: "Horror solved its ghetto problem through the simple act of destroying its own genre — greedy publishers, sloppy editors and lazy writers producing so much junk and in such quantities that 'Gresham's Law' kicked into effect. The bad drove out the good. Then the whole genre imploded. Seen any horror sections in major bookstores lately? But just as many species of trees, shrubs and wildlife flourish after a major fire burns away the old-growth forest, so this self-immolation of horror has led to new writers (and some old) coming back to the fields and hillsides of horror fiction, made more fertile by the flames and ash."

But something Wagner could not have foreseen has also come to pass. Something just becoming apparent when Winter wrote his essay. Something that Simmons overlooked.

***

As we slip deeper into the new century, conscientious writers of the horrific may be starting to sprout on the re-fertilized wastes of horror fiction. But without that system of standards of which we dare not speak, all too often it is not the conscientious writers of the horrific who are flourishing and being encouraged within the horror writing community itself.

In the mid-90s, many changes were occurring in both publishing as a whole and horror as its tiny part. Those actually in the profession were reacting with understandable slowness and confusion. This is too vast a subject to try to cover here, but for this context you can look back to 1994-95 and see a cusp. The old advice was no longer applicable, although a lot of well-meaning old advisors did not yet realize this. Horror-as-a-genre was already dead, but most were scrambling for the last scraps or hoping for new salvation (briefly thought to be coming from gaming). With doom descending there were those who still wanted to blame someone or something, when really there could be no simple scapegoat.

The current generation of horrorists began spawning in an abyss. The newcomers were just as enthusiastic, just as strident and derivative and awful as any who came before. Maybe worse, because they were one more generation removed from true feeling — a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, to the point where the copies were no longer legible.

Yes, the hacks, bottom-feeders, and lemmings began bailing out of the shrinking pond of horror. But it was not the good who always survived in the remaining shallow puddle. Some good writers had the ability to remain good writers and stay in the game by disguising horror as something else or writing something other than horror. It was tough luck for some writers of originality who were discarded. But many of the those most lacking in talent had no where else to go. They weren't versatile enough to write anything else, so they remained. Some saw their betters leaving the pond for more healthful waters and realized there might be an advantage in that for them. Some bottom-feeders stayed because there was less competition for the scum that was left.

They planted themselves in the mud and whined.

Thanks in large part to the networking capacity of the Internet, the wannabes could, for the first time, easily find their peers. The Net also became was an efficient way to set oneself up as a false writing idol. The mud-whiners were, to the wannabes, "real writers" to be looked up to and listened to. The wannabes and the mud-whiners found great strength in one another.

And woe to anyone who nay-said these self-declared deities or their new-found acolytes or dared point out a lack of quality. E-damnation was swift for any who mentioned such out-moded concepts as standards of good writing or professionalism. You were condemned for setting up "barriers" to new talent or being an elitist who held only "names" in regard.

One new catalyst the bad seeds of dark fiction used to sap the strength from horror: the onslaught, in the late 1990s, of new ways to "publish." The Web provided newbies — and nascent fan-writers rungs below even them in ability — a quick, cheap way to declare themselves. [Let it be noted that this writer benefitted directly and to a far greater degree than most from becoming a "Web-writer." But that is another subject.] Then CD-ROM, print-on-demand, and other self-service options easily allowed the "publication," so to speak, of work that never had to pass muster before a real editor. Neither these new "writers," nor their "editors," had to meet any sort of Standard at all.

Out of this has emerged what we might call the "miniscule press." The primary fallacy — "anybody can be a writer" — has exacerbated into "anybody can be a publisher." Miniscule horror press consists in part of what we used to call self-publishing or vanity publishing. In part it promotes the Publishing Buddy System: A buddy of yours becomes your publisher; you become your buddy's publisher. No one ever has to deal with an editor's opinion, judgment or, for that matter, assistance. (Most don't even have to be slowed down by something as mundane as copy-editing.) No one has to work and re-work a story or novel and improve it to the point of acceptability. No one needs to learn the craft of writing. No one even needs to fill in plot holes the size of Lake Erie or to be told a story lacks logic or characterization or is an overdone cliché.

Just grind it out, accumulate approbation from your similarly-ranked pals, and vigorously ignore the Standard.

The princes and princesses of the miniscule press read each other — as well as many in the almost-small press and the smallest of the mass market — congratulate each other, publish each other, edit each other, blurb each other, review each other, recommend each other for awards, twirl around together in an unending incestuous dance of parochialism while giving the finger to anyone who dares mention something as passť as a standard of excellence. Professionalism? You'll find more of that in any Girl Scout during the annual cookie sale.

And the tragedy is that the most self-aware among this new breed know they don't measure up to Real Writers, and are happy to tread water in an eddy that is 90% pointless, derivative crap, appearing in dreadfully-conceived anthologies full of amateurs, or excreting another novel-length waste of time about vampire cockroaches.

The more delusional among them have no reason not to believe that the loudest voice wins the debate. Operating under the misapprehension that an Internet connection makes them the epistolatory equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft reborn, they lay siege through e-mails, message boards, and chat rooms, easily finding other mud-whiners to mentor and succor them. They have learned the flashy trick of using attractive Web design to promote sub-par work — classic sleight of hand learned from modern advertising — and attract the gullible and the foolish into buying the lie that they really are writers.

The drawback is that many of these people have no desire to be writers, only to "have written." To wear the mantel of writers. But writing is not a waltz. It's a war. You have to be on the front lines, crawling on your belly in the blood and feces and mud, ducking the barbed wire and the enemy fire, risking your fucking LIFE to write as well as you can, better than you thought you could. Real writing happens when your blood meets the bayonet, when your bone is nicked with the blade. Then maybe someone will pat you on your bandages and tell you are a writer.

This is not to say that no good writing, even writing up to the Standard, is not available amidst the new-age ballyhoo. One only hopes that such writing and such writers may be allowed to breathe long enough to rise above the undertow... because, trapped in the miniscule press, they don't have a chance in Hell.

By now, you're probably asking yourself, "does any of this matter?" Little of this small-pond output escapes into the real world. For the most part no one in the larger reading public has any idea these people or their books exist. Just as no one really paid any attention to the proliferation of horror webzines, no one outside the horror community really pays any attention to the horror community.

Part of the problem lies solidly in the lap of this new horror "community." Instead of seeking out the best horror has to offer and proclaiming it to the world at large, this foggily-corralled group stays so busy promoting itself to itself that it has become isolationist — there is little interest in whatever is going on in the world outside its borders. As for nurturing new writers, helping them meet the Standard, and abetting real growth, the HC greets them with glee, validates their parking ticket, and then locks the door behind them. The unwary neophytes are in the lair of the mud-whiners and self-anointed new generation — which has more than enough internecine drama to sustain the illusion of life and movement.

The most exciting aspect of the miniscule press and other new media is that they furnish emerging talent a fresh forum. But they also provide mediocre (or worse) writers a way to tout their work to the public as top notch, just as good (or better) as the work of the writer who clawed his or her way to public attention in the old ways: submitting to the best markets, getting rejected, revising, learning, submitting again, and (perhaps) eventually getting published. Instead we have a cadre of increasingly desperate writers digging, filling, and stocking their own brackish inland swamp of literary incest.

Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of a group of like-minded people uniting to promote public awareness of the best their field has to offer; that is the raison d'etre of any organizational effort among artists. But the grail has been...misplaced. If offered an opportunity to promote the latest in horror, few foolishly waste time actually investigating what is being published. Why bother when you have your own book or press to push? Reviews? Don't worry about integrity, it's just another promotional opportunity for yourself, and the chum produced by your chums.

Don't be concerned that some truly terrible books and stories make it into the hands of readers who will be so insulted they will never come back to horror. Who remembers the '80s anyway. Awards? Why look for and try to conscientiously select works that achieve true excellence in the field? How silly. Just recommend each other and don't bother to read the rest. And don't forget to scoff at any effort by the knowledgeable to seek out and reward excellence — deem them snobs and denigrate them whenever possible.

As for those of you with the most to offer horror, don't call attention to the problems. Stay silent. Making too much noise is impolite. Be like me and spend years trying to avoid upsetting anyone and trying not to give offense. You'll lose anyway. As Richard Matheson said, "It doesn't have to make sense. The mere fact that you exist means somebody out there hates your guts." When the reek of rotting rectitude gets too rank to bear any longer, quietly creep away from the stench in embarrassment... just as most of your peers and betters have, before you. If there is a truth here, dismiss it as a squabble of decades past with no relevance to the here and now.

Most of all, never, ever feel passionate about the literature you once loved. In fact, other than bitterness over the detail that someone else got rich — or at least richer than you — try not to feel anything at all. Isn't it time to let the goddamned campfire burn out anyway?

Silence will smother that last spark. Horror, of course, will survive as it always has. But the Tribe — that amorphous creature that has, despite all, occasionally provided sustenance, support, attention — will die.


Paula Guran is currently nominated for a World Fantasy award for editing print zine Horror Garage (www.horrorgarage.com). She produced DarkEcho, a free weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others that was honored with several awards over its six years of existence. Many of the essays, reviews, and interviews she wrote for the now-defunct UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HORRORONLINE and OMNI ONLINE and elsewhere can be found at DarkEcho Horror (www.darkecho.com). DarkEcho has been recently revived as a sporadic and opinionated non-newsletter. (You can subscribe at or by emailing subscribe@darkecho.com.)


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