Adam Nevill, Jonathan Maberry, Chris Bauer, Nate Kenyon, Derek Gunn, and Michael F. Stewart – On Horror
From Bonk-busters to the laundry lists of the five horsemen, from the seeds of horror in personal histories to paranormal romance’s historical links to the genre, this is one conversation you don’t want to miss.
When Blog with Bite asked if I would do a post about the horror genre, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. What does any author with a debut-horror do? You recruit some of the best in the genre and ask them the questions. And did they ever deliver! Read on, these authors are scary smart.
There’s one other quirk to this post. Its authors are male. Why? Well, most of the authors read and interviewed on Blog with Bite are female, and I figured, why not shake things up?
To that end, I’m extremely pleased to present authors, Jonathan Maberry, Chris Bauer, Derek Gunn, Adam Nevill and Nate Kenyon. All of whom I’ve read, all of whom I’d unreservedly recommend for you to read. Which is why they’re here, talking about horror.
Because I grew up on King, Koontz, Lumley and Levin style horror. And because I believe we’re largely products of what we read. I derive my concept of horror from these authors. Not that The Sand Dragon is derivative, I think I survive that criticism because I’ve read loads of fantasy, thriller, romance and you’ll find bits of these genre conventions in all of my novels. So, what is horror to me? It’s unsettling, not grotesque. It is spine tingling, rather than startling. Yes, it includes violence and gore and no holds barred description. In fact, it’s a genre where their truly are no boundaries. Babies can be dismembered, people raped, animals can be boiled. Provided it serves the story, anything goes. Perhaps it’s that lack of restraint that makes excellent horror, the elucidation of our darkest, most abhorrent thoughts. How about you, Derek?
Derek Gunn: When I started reading Horror back in the 70s, Horror was the genre that covered King, Koontz, Lumley, Masterton and Herbert. These were the quality stories. There were a raft of other authors who were determined to use every animal under the sun, and some new to our fair planet, to kill as many humans as possible. We even had one book with wild rabbits, ‘The Folly’ it was called, and never have I known a name of a book to so completely describe its contents. Were they horror? They were certainly horrible and gruesome.
I always preferred those authors who filled their pages with those creeping moments that made you look over your shoulder – just to check you understand. Thomas Tryon’s ‘Harvest Home’ is a great example of this. ‘I am Legend’ also succeeds in spades. He really caught the atmosphere of being the only survivor. That was really horrific.
Nate Kenyon: I cast a pretty wide net. To me, horror is anything that unsettles you, makes you peer into the dark corners of life. It should make you FEEL. Horror is primarily emotional, a genre that hits you deep in the gut. As far as why I write it, I think it's pretty personal--I went through some tough things as a kid and I think that makes you more aware of those dark corners than you otherwise might be at that age. Toss in some King, Koontz, Straub, Herbert into the mix and voila! You've created a horror writer. That said, I don't set out to write horror (or any particular genre)--it's just that my stories tend to come out that way. I do think that any good fiction should make the reader connect with the characters, to go through that emotional roller coaster with them--and that's why I think the good horror is really successful, because of the emotional connection readers make with the characters in the story.
Chris Bauer: With one published horror/paranormal mystery to my credit I’ve only recently joined the ranks from the author side. At a younger age I viewed the horror genre as containing stories peppered with creepy or squishy or fang-filled monstrosities that came out of the sewers or from under your bed, or what lay in wait for the hero or next victim as he stood in front of a closed door, slowly and timidly turning its handle. These images still do the job for me because they provide the one element that is most common to the genre: fear-based tension. To me this means what’s on the other side of that door can be anything from severed body parts that are somehow still mobile, to a person about to reveal an unspeakable truth about her childhood or, better yet, the protagonist’s childhood. Keying off what Nate said, it makes unpleasant events feel very personal and fearful for the reader.
Adam Nevill: For me, horror as a definition in fiction is that which is written to intentionally horrify, frighten, or to at least disturb a reader. And horror is not solely restricted to stories and novels within the modern field of “horror”, but crops up in many other genres of fiction too.
Often, the best examples of horror appear to me in non-genre books. Ultimately, it is the result of an impulse in a writer to transport a reader by horrifying, frightening, or disturbing.
And I have found the desire for these responses in writers throughout the canon of literature. 2000 years ago Aristotle said that the Greek tragedy was created to affect “fear and pity” in the audience, and the tragedies contain depictions of some truly horrific fates of physical and supernatural origin. I’ve also found intentional horror in the Jacobean Revenge Tragedies, and in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that equal the most gruesome depictions of physical torment described anywhere today. Affecting psychological suspense/terror emerged more in the Gothic Romance of the 18th century, and became more prominent for its own sake in the professional ghost story writers of the nineteenth century, who are really, I think, the foundation of what we have today as the modern horror genre. And it was those ghost story writers like M R James and Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, from that classic age of British ghost story writing (late Victorian to Edwardian), that made me want to write horror.
So, I'd say, the impulse to horrify, to frighten and to disturb a reader has been within the creative mind from the beginning of recorded literature. What I can never really accept is why creating the effects of horror in a reader, are still seen as being less worthy as a writerly motive than, for instance, the intention to evoke mirth, or sympathy, or romantic sentiment, in a reader. Not a day goes by when I am not just aghast at my own species: life and mankind is the stuff of horror. So horror fiction is a legitimate reaction to the world, and affecting horror in a reader is as legitimate as affecting any other kind of emotional response in a reader.
I also think there is a valid place in the horror field to provoke physical revulsion, or physical horror, as well as the more subtle shades of psychological terror in readers that I tend to favour in my own writing – but it’s a wide field with room for all approaches. I suppose I sometimes hope to affect all of these responses, depending on the story. I also tend to emphasise the mediaeval interpretations of good and evil and traditional occult imagery to create a kind of psychic terror, in which my characters are threatened physically, psychologically, and also spiritually.
Lovecraft believed horror should evoke “wonder and awe” in a reader, and I do agree with this too – the mystical and the fantastic are often just as important as the terror.
Jonathan Maberry: Horror is more than a genre of fiction; it’s a state of mind. It’s the ‘what if’ concept filtered through our fears and insecurities. In horror stories –good ones, at least—the tale is usually accepted as a metaphor, either by deliberate craft of the writer, or through our own unconscious mind. The nature of the metaphor is different for each person. A zombie story can be a metaphor for racism, consumerism, fear of a vast and faceless corporate America, a plague, loss of personal identity, uncontrolled paranoia, the disintegration of the family or of society, and so on and on. The horror is what we make of it, and the writer doesn’t, or shouldn’t, impose only one fixed interpretation of it on the readers. In that regard it’s like poetry, abstract or surreal art, or a piece of instrumental music. We may care what the creator of the piece intends, and we may even know what he intends, but ultimately what matters most is how we interpret it. How we feel about it. Good horror does that to me every time. Bad horror, or cheap shot stuff like torture porn or shock horror never does.
Michael F Stewart: While I agree with you, Adam, that the evocation of fear is as important as other emotions (it’s certainly just as difficult to elicit), I would say that the evocation of love as embodied in the romance genre (and debatably more important than evoking fear!) is certainly as lowly considered by literary critics as horror. This said, in the mainstream, horror is very much on the rise and this brings me to the next question.
We’ve all mentioned authors that are very well established—all right, I’ll say what it is—they’re old. Besides yourself *tongue in cheek*, does any modern author measure up? What’s going to be the legacy of the modern genre? And why is it important as a genre, rather than just a marketing category? Adam Nevill says that horror fiction is a legitimate reaction to the world, and Jonathan Maberry mentions that good horror is a metaphor. I don’t disagree, but much of Science Fiction and Fantasy could also be considered metaphor. What is going on today that has given rise to the genre? Is it the war in Iraq? Fear of terrorism for which we have little individual control? Is horror an avenue to purge these fears by experiencing them through fictional characters?
What are these people reading? Everything. War, terrorism, the war on terrorism included. My cue to Jonathan Maberry here. Jonathan taps into this so well in his newest series of Joe Ledger novels. Terrorism from the zombie angle (PATIENT ZERO) and the genetically engineered mercenary army angle (THE DRAGON FACTORY). The theme for the third book in this series, yet to be published, escapes me at the moment. Cue Jonathan again. But all of these characters and plotlines still provide us with insights to the human condition, or the non-human or once-human condition in many cases. As far as thinking the horror fan is looking for an avenue to purge fears of real-life threats played out on the world’s stage, I still see readers as simply wanting to be thrilled, period, and looking for escapism by way of clever storylines and twists, and in a nod maybe more so to male readers, some kick-ass macho action.
Nate Kenyon: I think there are many talented young writers working in the genre today. If I started naming them I'd be sure to leave some out, so I won't. But I don't think we lack for good new writers. I'm not sure if they measure up to the old guard yet, and that's somewhat by definition: it takes time and a long track record to reach those levels. Some will make it, and some won't. As far as why the genre is important today, that's a very complicated question. But I do think it has to do with three important things: American's faith in our own invincibility being shaken by 911; our interconnected, global community (which in many ways is a good thing, but can also be pretty damn scary too); and technology. I love technology, but there's something terrifying about it too--that sense of a loss of control, of man giving way to machine.
I think there's one other thing going on as well. We're seeing a real explosion in speculative and supernatural story lines on TV and the big screen, and I think that has to do with special effects work becoming so powerful and realistic, allowing filmmakers to bring something like Iron Man to life in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago. Comic book and sci fi movies are summer tent pole blockbusters now, and I think that conditions a much wider audience to the idea that speculative fiction is not just for "geeks" or "weirdos" anymore. It's cool to like vampires and aliens these days. Spec fiction story lines are bleeding into other genres and types of stories too. A lot of writers might complain about Meyer's Twilight series for various reasons, but it's given a lot of other horror novels a boost.
Derek Gunn: I feel that horror has always been popular, though in a niche rather than within the generally accepted ‘bestsellers’ arena. Some authors have managed to bridge the gap between the two and have gained acceptance from the wider market. What is happening now, I feel, is that the lines are blurring more and more. Horror isn’t just ravenous creatures destroying the world, it has evolved. I don’t think it is necessarily a particular event that has caused this blurring. It is cyclical.
Science Fiction is including more ‘horror’ themes than ever before; Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is a perfect example of this, Neil Asher could absolutely stand with any current horror author and hold his head high. Romance is taking some of horror’s most beloved subjects and creating its own genre, and damn near taking over the bookshelves at the same time. Crime fiction is, arguably, more horrific than any of the novels termed ‘horror’ by the publisher. Jim Butcher has managed to make his magic-wielding hero sit on the cusp of three genres, horror, fantasy and Romance, and gain respect and readership from all three.
This leads to people experimenting with new genre’s and authors where the subject matter appeals to a larger base. Disaster stories have long been a stalwart of the horror field; The Stand, Swan Song etc, but we are seeing author’s like James Rollins making these end-of-the-world stories their own as thrillers. Zombie detectives, vampire heroes and cute blonde telepaths have all been offered before but sometimes the market is not ready, or sometimes they just have to be marketed in a different way.
Is genre writing at an end? No, of course not, but it will be interesting to see where the new authors will bring ‘Horror’ now that we have so many more mediums to contend with. TV serialisations, audio books, ebooks, self publishing have all played a key role in creating the new genres and establishing some of the ‘new’ talent that is out there. All offer new and exciting ways to reach a market or, as Stephen King recently postulated in his Kindle-only story UR, they may themselves become the subject of the next ‘horror’ theme.
In my experience in mainstream publishing, I tended to see publishers only looking back about three years to see what was best-selling then, before perpetrating more of what was working until it hit saturation, then loss of quality control, then burn out. Strategies would then move onto something else coming back out of the underground, or the wings. For instance, the bonk-buster is back too these days, and that vanished at about the same time as mainstream horror in the early nineties.
And for fifteen years it’s been all about thriller and crime in popular adult fiction. People buy and read what is available and has presence in major outlets. In fact, I first noticed the sea-change from the horribly over-published horror of the late eighties and early nineties, to crime and thriller primarily through Thomas Harris Silence of the Lambs. He popularized the human agent in horror, that made a lot of supernatural horror/crazy animal horror just look silly. The appetite for blockbuster serial killer crime just leapt from there, and many people buying the jaded and over-published horror jumped ship, because serial killer crime was fusing two genres effectively, and more plausibly, and didn’t disrupt natural law so much (one of the hardest things to pull off in fiction, which is why most horror novels end badly, I believe). Look how well John Connolly has also done from this trend. As well as many other terrific and smart writers who could see where things were at. There are dozens I could name who have been writing borderline horror, within the crime and thriller genres. Even the covers fooled me; I’d pick books up thinking they were horror, flip them over and read “FBI agent ...” This suggests to me that the appetite was always there; it just needs reinvention to remain vigorous. Same with my other great passion, heavy metal music: it will not die, despite changes in taste, it just absorbs new influences and evolves.
Post-Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, I actually read very little new horror besides Poppy Z Brite and Thomas Ligotti until around 2000. I grew tired of the over-publishing and thought better books were being published in other areas. Because publishing wanted something new that sold by the truckload like horror used to, and there was more brass to be made in other genres. Publishing is increasingly an industry with very little memory or acknowledged history, both in regards to its staff and with what worked more than just a few years hence. In 2000, my letter of introduction to agents regarding my first horror novel, Banquet for the Damned, was rejected by over 40 agents, who all said “No horror”; they wouldn’t even read a line of the actual book. It was irrelevant how good a book was in the great horror depression; the industry didn’t want to even consider a novel if it was straight supernatural horror. Unofficially, the genre has been dead to most mainstream publishers for about 15 years in the UK. And in adult fiction, whenever horror content appeared in books it was disguised as something else – serial killer crime fiction, or supernatural thriller at best. It has been the genre that dared not speak its name. The US seemed better with Leisure and Spectra and Tor.
I think the grass shoots of the current revival really appeared through other media, and hit critical mass about five years ago over here: through comics; PC Games; films; YA fiction where horror is always big with the young; TV series like Buffy and Angel and Supernatural; in thrillers featuring occult histories; and in paranormal romance that re-introduced the romance reader, then the genre reader, to traditional spectres like shape-shifters and vampires. Even though paranormal romance wasn’t written to disturb, it still made aspects of horror sexy again. And I repeat, the desire for horror was always in evidence, particularly with the young; and this appetite made the tropes creep back in other media and other genres of fiction. But almost never through fiction actually marketed as straight-up supernatural horror (where it was residing in series fringe fiction at best, or pure small press). I really noted the grass shoots around 2005 in the UK, and about two years before that in the US.
I do think this long nadir for horror was down to changing publishing strategies, after publishing lost all quality control by over-publishing horror when it was hot in the eighties. Publishing in effect, wrecked horror by over-publishing it, and is now reviving the field because it is lucrative again in other media. And horror has taken book publishing a bit by surprise this time. I was laughed out of a boardroom in 2005 for suggesting horror was becoming zeitgeist again. It really had such a rotten rep’ amongst publishing professionals.
Also, during the last six years, there have been some quality random horror titles that broke out and created a market awareness for publishers. They reminded readers just how good the genre could be when it was served neat, and reminded publishers just how profitable it could if it caught the zeitgeist. I cite World War Z by Max Brookes as one example. The Terror by Dan Simmons I’d say is in the top five horror novels ever written. The Ruins by Scott Smith was also a good reinterpretation of the classic eighties horror novel. Even The Road by Cormac McCarthy seemed a part of this. Let the Right One in was huge too, on and off screen. And this culminated in the UK in Jan 2009 with The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom, which became a UK number one bestseller. What all of these books did, primarily, is tell publishers that money could be made from horror again, and the new young editors – who all seem to be fans of the genre - were allowed to buy it. In mid-2009, my next two horror novels ended up in an auction. I smile wryly when I recall the rejected letter nine years before.
Of course, fiction is also now more author brand-driven; there have been fewer titles published better, which also helps. But over-publishing is around the corner if many more horror titles breakout to the next level.
One real positive that has evolved since horror was neglected by mainstream corporate publishing for fifteen years, was the rise of the small presses, where writers enjoyed more creative freedom and really revived short story writing in the genre. I cite Mark Samuels, Reggie Oliver, Joel Lane, and Conrad Williams in the UK, as excellent examples of superb writers cutting their teeth down there, off the High Street radar in dedicated small presses. Small Presses and magazines like Black Static have reinvigorated that speculative and surreal literary tradition of the weird tale that started with Poe and Le Fanu. Small presses brought me into print, as well as many other authors who felt compelled to write horror, but who would never have been given a shot in mainstream publishing. About four of us small press authors have now all landed big mainstream publishing deals in the last ten months. PS Publishing, Earthling, Ash Tree Press, Grey Friar, Night Shade Books, to name a few, actually carried the horror torch for a long time and should be honoured and supported for it. They published so many of us when no one else would. It’s also worth noting that the short story is probably the best vehicle for horror too; the short story has gone the way of poetry in most other genres, but not in horror because of these small presses and magazines.
I agree with Derek too – it’s younger readers who have a voracious appetite for crossing genres in the content they consume, and traditional genres are being reinvented as a result: horror with fantasy, fantasy with sci fi, romance with horror etc It’s given rise to Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Zombie Emo etc. Horror actually seems to have needed this reinvention to resurrect itself. When I look at the dominant media for under 30’s today – the computer game – I can immediately see where this desire for crossing genres in fiction comes from. Which begs a question for my own supernatural and occult based fiction: will straight supernatural horror get back to where it was in the seventies and eighties? Yes, if it is lucrative enough for publishers to keep investing in. And if they put it out there, in the promotions and the charts, and don’t bury it in the ghetto, people will buy it. Some of the new generation of writers will break out and endure; I can only hope I might be one of them!
Among the superstars we have the Five Horsemen: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons and Dean R. Koontz. These guys can get their laundry lists onto the bestseller lists –and often those laundry lists make for some damn fine reading. There may be some detractors (and there are always people who try to elevate themselves by taking swings at more successful players) but even the poorest works from these guys are well-written and can hold their own against most of the competition. There is a certain degree of confidence that comes from being a major player, and that confidence reinforces the storytelling.
But there are a lot of superb writers in the genre who are not at the same level in terms of books sold. Tom Picirilli comes to mind, because his stuff is excellent and it plays across genre lines (the thriller crowd loves him to death). Jack Ketchum, of course; and a laundry list of others whose works are always a delight: Nancy Etchemendy, Kaelan Patrick Burke, Sarah Langan, Joe McKinney, Max Brooks, Brian Keene, Joe Lansdale, Gary Braunbeck, Scott Nicholson, Doug Clegg, Ray Garton, Christopher Golden, Kelley Armstrong, L.A. Banks, James Herbert, Graham Masterton, Deb LeBlanc, Joe Nassise… god, I could go on and on.
With each of these writers –and a few dozen I haven’t mentioned – there are works that stand up to just about any writer, past or present.
Horror writing is alive and well in the 21st century, thank you very much.
One of the things that helps horror survive and even flourish is the same thing that gives it a contemporary relevance is its ability to cross genre lines. Scott Smith did very well with ‘mainstream horror’ in The Ruins. Cormac McCarthy won a Pulitzer for his literary/science fiction/horror The Road. John Connolly and James Lee Burke have worked supernatural elements into their recent novels. Horror comedies like Zombieland do very well at the movies; and horror comics are catching fire with The Walking Dead (heading to TV).
At the same time horror ‘purists’ are getting in the way of their beloved genre’s own progress. Case in point is the huge and expanding market of ‘paranormal romance’, which spills over into urban fantasy and dark fantasy. The entrenched horror crowd often—and vocally—dismiss these novels because they are not old school horror, and because the focus is often on ‘supernatural’ rather than horror. This is not only counterproductive to the success of the horror market, but it’s also wrong. Dracula and Carmilla were romance novels with horror elements. Most 19th century horror novels were, with a few exceptions. Horror isn’t always about evil monsters and lakes of blood.
The fantasy crowd seems to have gotten this message, hence the attachment of the word ‘fantasy’ to the urban fantasy and dark fantasy markets. Laurell K. Hamilton, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Rachel Caine and a slew of others are laughing all the way to the bank. So is Joss Whedon.
How does this connect to metaphor in storytelling? It’s there on every page. The paranormal romance market is built around the storytelling trope of ‘forbidden love’. That’s Beauty and the Beast, King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queen of the Damned, and scores of other successful entries in fiction, TV and film. Horror fiction, TV, and film.
Even the teen market recognizes the fun of telling stories about love and loss in stories ranging from Twilight to the Vampire Diaries. Mega-bestselling series that keep vampires, werewolves and other horror elements in the public eye, while actually telling stories about the complexities of puberty, developing love, betrayal, and hatred.
As I mentioned in my previous entry, horror can be used to tell any kind of story. Most fantasy can (and horror, along with science fiction, is an aspect of the kind of fantastic storytelling that goes all the way back to Gilgamesh). The real world will always continue to provide themes –wars, diseases, heartache, social injustice, etc.—and horror will be right there to spin tales about it in forms that are more entertaining than the evening news.
A big thank you to the participating authors from whom I have learned a great deal and who are blazing a trail I hope to follow. If you want to learn more about them, read on and click on the links within their bios. You can find their novels everywhere.
To Blog with Bite, I appreciate the opportunity to create this post. Now, I’d like to pass the conversation over to your readers. What are your thoughts on horror? Has it reached its zenith? What do you look for in a good horror, in any of its many manifestations?
Ghost Road Blues, Patient Zero, The Wolfman, etc.), nonfiction books (Zombie CSU, The Bite, etc.), and Marvel Comics (Black Panther, Doomwar). His Joe Ledger novels have been optioned for TV by Sony and are being published all over the world. In 2010 Simon & Schuster will release ROT & RUIN, Jonathan's first Young Adult novel. He's a member of ITW, MWA, and HWA. A true new media maven, you can find him on his website at www.jonathanmaberry.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
Nate Kenyon is a multiple Bram Stoker Award nominee who has racked up a starred review from Publishers Weekly (for THE REACH). His most recent novel is SPARROW ROCK. Born in Maine, educated in Connecticut (at Trinity College) and now a resident of Boston, Nate writes novels that blur the line between horror and thriller, and which are amassing a huge following of devoted -and frightened--fans.
Derek Gunn lives in Dublin, Ireland with his wife and three children and is the author of four novels. His post-apocalyptic thriller series, Vampire Apocalypse, has been widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic in the genre media and it is published by Black Death Books. The three books in the series are; "A World Torn Asunder" (2006), "Descent into Chaos" (2008) and "Fallout" (2009). Derek also released "The Estuary", published by Permuted Press in 2009 which is available in Borders and Waldenbooks stores throughout the USA as well as from online booksellers.
Derek's first book is under option for film and an adaptation is currently in active development as a major movie. Also, the Graphic novel rights to Derek's VAMPIRE APOCALYPSE series have been picked up by a US indie publisher - the first graphic novel is due out in 2011. Visit his website at www.derekgunn.com
Adam Nevill is the Author of Banquet for the Damned - a novel of supernatural horror, published by PS Publishing and Virgin Books, and the author of nine other novels under a pseudonym. His next novel, Apartment 16, is published in May 2010 by Pan Macmillan. Visit his website at www.adamlgnevill.com
Philly-born corporate type first published at a sinfully older age who finds he now has a lot to say. Novelist and short story writer. His novel SCARS ON THE FACE OF GOD: THE DEVIL’S BIBLE, Drollerie Press, was a finalist for a 2010 EPIC Award in horror. Shorter works have been in horror, mainstream, crime & pulp fiction genres, have won various non-descript writing contests and have appeared in Thuglit (#29) and Well Told Tales (#60). WTT’s podcasted audio production of his pulpy short story “You’re A Moron” has generated 12,000 free downloads, a gratifying experience, Chris says, all except for the ‘free’ part. Visit his website at http://cgbauer.net/
24 BONES is his debut supernatural thriller and The Sand Dragon his first horror. His next novel, HURAKAN, will be released in late 2010. Michael lives and writes in Ottawa, Canada. Join him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=721820375 or Twitter @klikables.