The Horror Story Is Dead: Official

Reading & Writing

If you made a list of your reading influences from the age of eight to eighteen, what would they be?

Partly because we didn’t have any kids’ books at home, mine reading included the simpler Dickens and Shakespeare tales (thankfully introduced to me at an early age), Mervyn Peake, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hammer horror, Ian Fleming, the Pan Books of Horror, Marvel comics, Henry Fielding and Anthony Trollope, Dryden and Keats and oddly, Samuel Pepys. Most of these I did not discover through school but by trawling the library while I was sick and through my mother’s weirdly eclectic tastes.

The horror genre was enough to drive my first short stories. In these I tried to recreate a lonely urban childhood and relish it again, but wanted to ring some changes in the traditional horror story because if I’d read one homage to MR James I’d read the bloody lot.

After two published collections I got bored and started hammering wedges in between genres, making my own space in the cracks. Critics did not know where I fitted. The Times said ‘These pitch-black urban stories are cut in merciless absurdist humour, and glory in self-contained narratives so powerful they hold the reader in an equally murderous grip.’ Which was nice but didn’t make for popularity.

I was slowly uninvited from those coteries of earnest fantasylit conventions full of earnest bad writers and hilariously naïve small press publishers, but I wasn’t reputable enough to be invited to literary festivals. It took me a long time to realise that the attendees belonged to different tribes separated largely by class.

The interesting elements of the horror story were absorbed into the mainstream, so that all that was left behind were pastiches. It was acceptable to mix humour, satire, horror and irony together on film, but not in written stories; the market had become deeply conservative.

The horror story is unable to transgress without offence

Film made the change but the written word chosen not to follow, which is how it ended up in a dead end today.

As I’ve mentioned before, the first time the safety blanket had been firmly pulled from beneath my feet was ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, the book, and then again in the film, equally brilliant. Polanski recognised that the idea is an intellectual one; the surface story of a woman carrying the devil’s child is a vehicle to explore control and betrayal.

Although if I’m honest, there was an earlier rug-pull of a horror tale. ‘An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce, written in 1890, was both a short story and much later a short film. The last time I felt anything like the effect of this was in the movie ‘Hereditary’, barring its foolish final scene, in whichToni Colette is so buried beneath the weight of the past that her fate is foregone from the opening shot. It would never have got past the fantasylit conventioneers, but then neither would ‘Us’ or ‘Get Out’. The latter has a precedent, ‘The Skeleton Key’, about the poisoned legacy of slavery.

Without intellectual heft horror is weightless and meaningless, a series of stale repetitive shocks that become fainter and fainter carbons of each other. The written horror tale now has a bad rep. It’s toxic, unable to transgress without offence, and if it does not shock it merely turns to nostalgia, as with the TV show ‘Stranger Things’. Times have changed, and we don’t need such tales anymore.

Looking back over old horror collections, I’m shocked at how reactionary many stories are. It began as a conservative medium – let’s not pretend it was written by leftist intellectuals – and returned to being so in its final days. There are a handful of fine practitioners left, selling their wares through the small press. Millions more people are watching viral clips of a girl painting her toenails.

It’s time to put a wreath on the written horror story and move on.

25 comments on “The Horror Story Is Dead: Official”

  1. Chris Fountain says:

    I always remember buying a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in the early sixties when I was on holiday in Hunstanton. I could hardly read it I think because I related to the two lads and the seemingly safe setting of small town America, although I’d never lived there, and the even safer confines of a library.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    As the great Irish philosopher Frank Carson said: “It’s the way ye tell ’em”.
    What we seem to have lost is that sense of unease that 19th and early 20th c authors managed to capture, the subtle description of some creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right and that you’re probably alone in spotting it. MR James succeeded in producing some of the consistently best stuff but Lovecraft, Le Fanu, Machen, Algernon Blackwood et al made numerous worlds of strangeness. I find M John Harrison works for me when he’s doing horror.

    The modern big boys like Stephen King and James Herbert do nothing for me – the bigger the book, the less satisfying.

  3. Brooke says:

    ‘An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge’ — ah, again, Time.
    In a NYT feature about prominent black male writers/film creatives, Peele, etc. credited pioneering Octavia Butler as a major influence. indred and Parable of the Sower are powerful modern horror narratives; there’s no resolution–just a sense of soldiering on.

    “Without intellectual heft horror is weightless and meaningless…” Part of the heft derives from portrayal of remorse and/or deep sense of lost; which implies having values, cherishing something and trusting–all thin on the ground.

    No wreath for the written horror story please; rumors of its death are exaggerated.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    From eight to eighteen, my list was very eclectic:

    Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Frank Richards, The Pan Books of Horror/Ghost Stories, P. G. Wodehouse (natch), Agatha Christie, Nevil Shute, J.B Priestley, various biogs and autobiogs. I couldn’t get on with Dickens, apart from “The Pickwick Papers” which I loved. I just couldn’t stand Ian Fleming and Alastair Maclean.

    I spent hours in the library reading play scripts from “Plays of the Year” books-these were volumes of 4 popular plays from each year.

    The biggest faves were the Dennis Wheatley black magic books, and some of his many others. This started when I saw the Hammer film “The Devil Rides Out”, which is still in my Top 20 films. It lead to an interest in anything to do with Black Magic and the supernatural. A few years ago I started to read “The Satanist”-I missed it when I was young. Sad to say I gave up, it was dreadful. Awfully dated and suffered with clunking dialogue.

  5. admin says:

    I’ve a feeling there are a few columns lurking on this site about Wheatley.

    For horror films about remorse/ loss, ‘The Others’, ‘The Orphanage’ and ‘Julia’s Eyes’ are all good.

  6. Bob Low says:

    I bought a second hand copy of ‘The Satanist’ during the Christmas holiday. I enjoyed a few of Wheatley’s novels I read when I was a teenager, but ‘The Satanist’ is quite terrible, and must have seemed almost laughably dated when it was published first in 1960. The mixture of gloatingly described obscene rituals and square jawed, virtuous heroes is very odd – there’s a feeling almost of ‘Biggles Breaks Up a Black Mass’ about it. I have to agree with Brooke about the horror story, though. Anyone wanting to get a good feeling for where the genre is now, in Britain at least, should try to get hold of an anthology published a couple of years ago called ‘This Dreaming Isle’. Most of the stories have a dream-like folk horror feel to them, and the quality of writing is very high. Our host’s point about the current commercial standing of the genre is proved, however by the fact that the publication of the book had to be crowfunded through Kickstarter.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    To be fair, in a documentary about him which I saw some years ago, he said that dialogue was never his strongpoint, he was more of an ideas man, which I think is fair comment.

  8. Richard says:

    Bob!
    ‘Biggles breaks up a black mass.’ Probably the first time I’ve laughed today. Many thanks!

    Horror seems to work best as a cross genre framing structure these days. Mark Gatiss and Charlie Stross have had a lot of fun with old horror tropes.

  9. Roger says:

    “Biggles Goes To a Black Mass” would be much more entertaining.

    “the book had to be crowfunded through Kickstarter.”
    Only vulturefunding or ravenfunding would be more appropriate.

  10. Mike says:

    The only horror book I couldn’t read late at night was “Ghost Story” by Peter Straub.
    I was in my late twenties as well 🙂
    Books read from 8 to 18, Enid Blyton, WH Johns, Agatha Christie (not many, couldn’t get on with her), war stories, Dennis Wheatley, Jean Plaidy, Frank Yerby and Leslie Charteris are the ones that spring to mind. I used to pick up books for my mother from the library hence Yerby and Plaidy

  11. Oskar from Sweden says:

    Hi Christopher, many thanks for an ever-interesting blog. I wonder if you could share with us which fine practitioners of the horror story you refer to in the last paragraph? Would be fun to give them a read.

  12. Bob Low says:

    Richard – you are very welcome!

  13. Liz Thompson says:

    Biggles breaks up a black mass would be true to the Biggles grim-jawed ethos I remember. I loved the Biggles stories as a kid, as a girl I might have felt excluded, but I identified with the young lad, Ginger, was it? I always preferred the Eagle comic to the rather wet Girl. As a student, I took to feminism swiftly and enthusiastically, much to my mother’s dismay. My father was probably more dismayed by my marxist/anarchist readings and enthusiasm. Have to say, both the feminism and the anarchism have lasted. I read all the M R James and Poe stories as a 10-12 year old. Read no horror since, except some of your short stories,Mr Fowler. I did love Dennis Wheatley as a kid, my dad had them. But I never saw them as horror stories, possibly because I was into Egyptian mythology, which is a genre? all of its own.
    My daughter reads Laura Purcell, sort of Gothic horror I gather. Three books so far I think.

  14. Jan says:

    I think Brookes quite right.

    It’s hiding a little bit and perhaps migrated into young adult fiction. – As previously discussed.

    Not gone though not at all.

  15. admin says:

    Hi Oskar,
    The anthologies edited by Conrad Williams, like Gutshot and Dead Letters, have some good stories. Editor Jonathan Oliver also has a fine eye for tales in books like ‘Enf of the Line’. Marie I’Regan & Paul Kane’s ‘Cursed’ also contain surprises. For more literary horror John Connolly is great (although he gets a bit Jamesian). It’s ridiculous that there are so few female genre editors of repute.

  16. Oskar from Sweden says:

    Thanks, I’ll look them up.

  17. Bob Low says:

    Admin – while there are too few female genre editors, I’ll stick my neck out and say that the greatest current editor of horror anthologies is Ellen Datlow. He name on any book is a guarantee of quality.

  18. Alison Low says:

    The folk horror genre is thriving. Andrew Michael Hurley is one of the best writers I have found in recent years, thanks to Tartarus Press picking up on his first novel before going mainstream. The ‘Terror Tales’ series edited by Paul Finch has plenty of new and innovative short horror stories focusing in different areas of the UK. Paul’s short pieces on the folklore and grisly stories from the regions is both an informative and entertaining read. Ellen Datlow is the high priestess of horror anthologies, we may only have one woman that I am aware of, but she is by far the best.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Bob – I thought that I had encountered the funniest Biggles title in a sketch from ‘At Last The 1948 Show’, in which an annoying bookshop customer enquires if the shop has ‘Biggles Combs His Hair’ (and also ‘The Gospel According To Charlie Drake), but ‘Biggles Breaks Up A Black Mass’, beats it hands down. Nice one.

  20. Peter Dixon says:

    Always liked the Monty Python ‘Biggles Flies Undone’

  21. Ramsey Campbell says:

    I believe the horror tale is as vital as ever. Perhaps even some of my attempts have a bit of life. I’m afraid I don’t recognise the situation you describe at all.

  22. admin says:

    Ramsey, I do believe it’s vital but it has been incorporated into a wider brief now. Admittedly I don’t read as many anthologies as I used to but it’s hard to think of one truly original short horror story that falls within recent memory. You started in a time when the field was still rich and literary – any recommendations you have now will be greatly appreciated.

  23. Anthony from Athens, Greece says:

    Hi, Christopher. As a collector -and avid reader- of short horror stories (mostly in the the form of single author story collections) for over 20 years, I fully embrace Ramsey Campell’s opinion. However, as you have rightly pointed out (which is sad, given the access restriction to a wider number of readers), the finest practitioners left, mostly “are selling their wares through the small press”. Such practicioners coming easily to my mind are Reggie Oliver, Colin Insole, Peter Bell and D.P Watt. I would recommend the story ‘Blood and Smoke, Vinegar and Ashes’ from the latter’s collection “Petals and Violins” published by Tartarus Press, as one of the finest horror stories ever written.

  24. admin says:

    My position stems from an overview; as I was growing up horror was almost as big a genre as crime, if not equal. To see it dwindle to a specialist readership of a few hundred is very sad.

  25. Wayne Mook says:

    I think you know where I stand on this but hey ho.

    The problem is not the readers or writers, but publishers and to the main extent the book sellers. They have never been prominent in selling horror, like a dirty secret and it always has been. The horror section was always hidden in a corner, now it’s worse.

    In one of my local Waterstones there is no horror but they have fantasy and SF, Stephen king appears in SF, really? Koontz and King are two of the biggest sellers, the only fantasy above them is Rowling and her fantasy is sold in the children’s section, most of her new novels are crime. The only other novelist that gets close is Tolkien and he’s not written anything in years having died in 1973. No SF novelist gets close. Amazon doesn’t list horror on it’s genres.

    Publishers do, on the Tor it is easy to find, Pan Macmillan a little harder but they are there.

    Goodreads has a horror section too.

    Black Static has a great deal of unsettling fiction, intelligent aspects of modern life but very distorted.

    As to pastiche, crime is the worst.; how many Victorian crime novels do we need? Holmes pastiches like Sexton Blake, Solar Pons etc. and people keep churning out new Holmes. Books of them scar the bookshops (just run a search of new Holmes), and returning to the golden age of crime so much so there is even a sub-genre cosy crime. Murder as pleasantly safe nostalgia.

    As to the criticism, it’s always been levelled at horror , the gothic were ridiculed (Northanger Abbey makes fun of them and their impressionable young audience.),the penny dreadfuls, EC comics, the video scares both here and in Germany amongst others, a base genre that preys on the gullible and deals with sensationalist and which glories in gore. A child-like fascination to repulse our elders and betters. Nothing but a cheap thrill. To be honest I don’t see why enjoying being scared is such a crime, It seems reading for fun and pleasure is not allowed. Like roller coaster and pop music you are supposed to grow out of them as you become wiser and mature. On the intellectual level no other genre deals with death, fear and the unknown better. In horror you can easily cut to the basic emotions without a filter of culture, the detective as finder of truth, especially when the direct effect between is between victim and perpetrator, whatever that maybe. It always was seen as offensive, especially when it was pushing boundaries. Anything that transgresses the boundaries of any culture will.

    On a side note we see MR James as safe, and yes he could make a sheet seem terrifying, but he dealt with the death of children, Lost Hearts with it’s sound of finger nails on the metal bath. The Ash Tree has a terrible final image. Horror can also mirror indirect fears, such as Caterpillars (EF Benson) and a reading that it could be about cancer. Slavery has always been a staple of horror, from mind control, societies control to actual slavery, and the echoes it carries down the ages. Curses are the past wrongs manifest in the physical presence . The films mentioned were embraced by the genre, most readers are film buffs in the horror genre.

    Horror has always had 2 sides, direct, remember spatter punk from the 80’s and the indirect such quiet horror by the likes of Charles Grant, there was a mass argument between the 2, even a wrestling match, really. Both push at what is acceptable to write about and how to write it; and give light and confront our inner and outer fears of reality, pain, loss, memory; the list goes on.

    A thing with horror though is it’s definition, there are 2 – 1 to cause horror, unease or outright repulsion and 2 – anything to do with the supernatural, especially that linked to death.

    But then a genre is just a label used to sell stuff, people who read this also read that (usually because they are lumped on the same shelves, or section of a website), people who liked this also liked this because they are similar books.

    Horror has always been the runt genre and has been attacked endlessly, horror pretty much disappeared in the 50’s & 60’s, in the later 70’s & 80’s it had a brief flourish before being banished from the mainstream in literature, but never from storytelling. It’s probably in a resurgence at the moment, in other media and in word online but the booksellers seem not to want to dirty their hands, how they must loathe Stephen King. It’s also one of the easier ways from working class writers to get a start, but we now have a dearth of both. Not really a coincidence. Pulp crime and horror have always been labelled as more blue collar, the pulp magazines have gone and horror lurks in cracks between other genres. (did you know Mills & Boone has horror/romance – twilight of goths for sure.) Never under estimate class for keeping things repressed.

    As to what horror could be written now, well we have a disease that seems to effect the elderly but hardly the young who can carry it to their elders, now what to make of that? How do the elderly protect themselves from the young especially when the young make up most of the low paid carers? Now that’s horror, fear of your grandchildren.

    By the way Peter, James Herbert died 7 years ago and he only put out one book after 2006. Not really the modern beating heart.

    There is a lot of horror out there, but it’s having to disguise itself to get in the shops, YA as noted and remember when silence of the Lambs was a book it was crime, when it came out as a film critics labelled it horror, as they did with the Hannibal TV series.

    Not sure if any of that made sense, sorry to ramble but things have been a little strained.

    Wayne.

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