Stefan Dziemianowicz responds to Jay Russell on the state of the horror field (24 March)
I strongly suspect that there is little real disagreement between Stefan Dziemianowicz and myself -- I think weíre arguing about the number of demons who can fart on the head of a pin -- but I feel obliged to respond nevertheless.
I had two goals in mind in writing the piece. The first thing was to note the sheer lunacy of the notion that the decline of horror could possibly be a good thing for the genre or those involved with it. I should have made it clearer, but that litany of examples detailing horrorís lowly state -- some of which Dziemianowicz fairly takes issue with -- arenít so much assumptions of mine, as they are a reporting of some of the things Iíve heard said in *defense* of the genreís impending resurgence. I agree that there is absolutely no reason why a boom in movie horror should have the slightest impact on the fiction market. It is clear that, tie-ins notwithstanding, there is virtually no overlap between filmgoers and book buyers. But I donít know how many times Iíve heard it suggested that the success of Scream, etc. is bound to be good for horror publishing. Similarly with R.L. Stine and the generation of readers who will supposedly grow up as horror lovers. Uh-huh. Dziemianowicz is right, however, to take me to task for bemoaning the lack of a pro fiction magazine for horror. Thatís just a kvetch on my part - so much pissing into the wind.
My second goal was to ask if the decline in the field is something more than a cyclical genre thing (another oft-posited theory) and if horror fiction, as presently constituted, is still a meaningful form for readers. If Iíd had more space I would have expanded the analogy with the western because I still think it is instructive. It is often suggested, though the point isnít entirely accurate, that the western was effectively absorbed by the rise of the urban thriller (e.g. Dirty Harry), which dramatically and thematically dealt with many of the same ideas and emotions, but in a setting/context more accessible and useful for audiences. I canít help but wonder if genre horror fiction hasnít reached that same state, except that much of what it does best has been taken on by contemporary crime fiction. I admit that there is often a very thin line separating genre categories, but I find myself turning to crime writing more and more for the kinds of frisson and gratification that I used to get from horror. James Ellroy is the best horror writer who never wrote a horror novel. Except maybe for Derek Raymond.
While I appreciate Dziemianowiczís kind words about my own work, I must confess that I am more pessimistic about horror now than I was when I wrote ďDead & BuriedĒ six months ago (the cancellation of the Dark Terrors series is particularly depressing -- though of course the series has never even found a US publisher). Dziemianowicz notes that horror fiction was a moribund genre for about 30 years pre-King, and I canít help but wonder if it isnít headed for another very long drought. Dziemianowicz may be right that horrorís brief, Ď80s venture out of the sales ghetto was a historical accident, and as with all such statistical blips we have now regressed to the mean (but does it have to be *so* mean?). And he is certainly correct that horror will always remain viable as a means of creative expression -- it is too fundamental to the human condition to be otherwise. I remain convinced, however, that genre horror has dwindled not merely quantitatively but qualitatively and that the all but complete demise of a marketplace for horror fiction augers a continuing spiral of decline. I believe that decline is not just a function of marketing/publishing issues, but of a lack at the heart of the genre; a failure to respond to the changing needs, beliefs and experiences of readers.
Now *thatís* scary.
28 March 1999
(posted Mon 29 Mar 1999)
Iím glad Jay Russell mentioned bad books in his essay on horror. Many of the essays about the death (or un-life) of the horror genre forget one of the most important things. One reason horror never gained the lasting popularity that publishers expected is because those publishers were putting out so many terrible books. Certain companies (you know which ones they were) thought that a book would sell if it had a decaying skull or a werewolf or even, now and then, a nifty hologram. They forgot to make sure the book itself was good. Even sadder, many great books were ignored because they were hidden behind sleazy covers. Horror reviewers were unlikely to read those books -- for good reason, because so many of them were bad. (How many deformed inbred tribes are killing campers in the backwoods, after all?) The great tragedy is that the glut of bad books killed off interest in books put out by the *good* publishers. People who might have been interested in Torís line of horror novels didnít know they were out there because they thought horror was all decaying skulls and bad writing. This is what happened to the Gothic romance genre. Many great books were published in this genre. (For example, try Evelyn Berckmanís The Voice of Air or David Caseís Fengriffin.) But publishers tried to take advantage of the reading public with terrible Gothics, and the reading public figured out that it had been had.
There are other reasons horror never took off, of course. People are less likely to want to read about scary things. In todayís society, people are less likely to read, period. (Now *thatís* the true horror.) But letís not forget about the part played by misconceptions about the genre (in part caused by those awful covers). Iíve often heard Stephen King fans surprised that the bookstore shelves Stephen Kingís books in the horror section. ďHeís horror?Ē they ask. It makes you wonder what they think horror novels are like if they donít recognize Stephen King as a horror novelist.
Jay Russell did a good thing by mentioning Westerns. But he mentioned only the films. Remember when most stores carried only a few Western novels? The publication of books like Lonesome Dove, some experts predicted the Western would be revived. It has become stronger, but only with the infusion of authors like Robert Conley. A genre canít rely on only one or two big authors to survive -- it needs a number of good authors. And the publishers have to be willing to take chances. Maybe thereís hope yet.
Anne M. Marble
25 March 1999
(posted Mon 29 Mar 1999)
I read Jay Russell's eulogy for the horror field in the March issue with great interest. I wouldn't think to argue with a working horror writer, especially because I agree with most of his conclusions regarding the dismal state of contemporary horror publishing. But I do question some of the assumptions on which those conclusions are based.
As proof of horror's problems as "a viable genre in contemporary publishing," Russell cites the defection of Joe R. Lansdale (among others) to the mystery field. But Lansdale was writing crime thrillers (and -- more appropriately, considering the comparisons Russell makes -- westerns!) years before he was regarded as a horror writer.
Russell considers it a problem that "there is no professional magazine market for short horror fiction" -- but when was there, really? Twilight Zone published horror fiction in the 1980s, but it also published a considerable amount of non-horror and had ceased to be a significant force by the time the boom hit at the decade's end. Night Cry, Twilight Zone's all-horror companion, lasted fewer than a dozen issues and died before TZ did. In all likelihood, neither magazine would have lasted as long as it did were its owners, the Montcalm Publishing Company, not raking in the bucks from its flagship publication, Gallery, a men's magazine, which TZ editor T.E.D. Klein once described as "the poor man's Hustler."
Russell is puzzled by how "a boom in Hollywood has no impact whatsoever on audiences' desire to read horror." But why should this be surprising? Weird Tales didn't enjoy any appreciable rise in circulation in the 1930s, when Universal Pictures was popping out Frankenstein sequels (and the like) faster than villagers could torch the monster. The best example of how moviegoer tastes translate into fiction sales can be found in the science fiction field: the enormous popularity of Star Trek and Star Wars in the 1970s and '80s didn't get people reading more science fiction -- it simply ensured that Star Trek and Star Wars novelizations would hit the bestseller lists.
Russell also remarks on how ironic it is that "Stephen bloody King, who still totes up million-plus sales in hardback, has to be 'repositioned' out of genre for his new book." Maybe King's dwindling sales have something to do with the waning appeal of horror -- but they might also be attributed to the rising tide of Stephen King books, all of which still hit the bestseller list.
It's not my intention to rebut Russell point by point. He argues his case eloquently and backs it up, no doubt, with wisdom drawn from personal experience. But his is the most recent in a spate of "the death of horror" essays (so many of which have been written of late, that it's time for some wag to write a "death of the death of horror" essay), and like them he evokes the image of horror publishing in the '80s as a rich, nurturing Garden of Eden from which we've fallen.
Let's doff the rose-colored glasses and look this monster straight in its pustulant, ugly face. While everyone likes a good spooky story now and then, horror is not a genre with mass appeal. It never had been. It never will. Between 1920 and 1950, while science fiction, detective, and -- yes -- western magazines proliferated, there was really only one market for horror fiction, Weird Tales. With the death of Weird Tales in 1954, horror was relatively moribund as a fiction genre (although films did pretty well) until Stephen King started topping the bestseller charts in the 1980s. You can cite all the units-shipped statistics for King, or million copy print runs for Anne Rice that you want, but they don't translate as indicators of genre popularity. Publishers thought they did in the 1980s, and the clone-the-competition mentality that drove publishing then pushed one house after another to start its own horror line. Has everyone forgotten the '80s already? There was more money to spend more frivolously. Belts are tighter in the '90s, and fantasy and science fiction as well as horror have suffered diminishing sales. Don't take my word for it -- consult the statistics reported in the February 1999 Locus.
Those statistics are significant for what they reveal -- namely that horror, even during the so-called boom years, was a smaller market than fantasy or science fiction. Those statistics are also significant for what they don't reveal: namely, that when gross numbers are small, even tiny fluctuations seem large. Some time between 1986 and 1988, the number of horror titles published increased by nearly 100 percent -- which is to say that the total number of horror titles increased from slightly less than 100 per year to slightly less than 200. That was still pretty puny in comparison to fantasy and science fiction totals. Locus reports that only 110 original horror novels were published in 1998 -- a significant decline from the heady 1995 totals of 193 novels, but anywhere from 2 to 3 times the number of titles that were being published between 1983 and 1985, when some of the best work in the field (Campbell's Incarnate, King's Pet Sematary, McCammon's Usher's Passing, Barker's Books of Blood, Rice's The Vampire Lestat, and so on). The moral of the story is that "boom" and "bust" are relative distinctions.
But arguing statistics can make your head spin, and ultimately says nothing about the viability of horror as a genre. The fact is, but for Stephen King and a few lucky souls who have followed in his slipstream, horror has not been a commercially rewarding genre. For most of the twentieth century, it has been the occasional guilty pleasure of a large readership with varied (read: fickle) tastes, and the very air breathed by a small but devoted cadre of genre enthusiasts. (Most small/specialty press publications appear in editions of 300 to 500 copies: the World Horror Convention annually attracts 300 to 500 people without turning anyone away: you do the math.) Nevertheless, horror as a genre has survived -- and for that matter survived considerably more anemic states than its current one. Who could have predicted, in the early 1970s, when horror fiction was marketed as "occult" fiction and frequently mixed in with Gothic romances in the book racks, that a writer would emerge who would not only translate the anxieties of his generation into powerful myths that resonated with the culture, but the books he wrote would also become some of the bestselling titles of the twentieth century?
I sympathize with Jay Russell, whose own writing, which ebulliently resists simple classification as "horror fiction," is one of the brighter lights on the contemporary horror horizon. Speaking as a horror reader, right now I wouldn't want to be in any horror writer's shoes. But I know that no matter how little horror that writer is able to get published in the years ahead, I look forward for reading it. And between writers like him or her, and fans like me, we'll somehow keep the genre "viable."
24 March 1999
(posted Wed 24 Mar 1999)