The Horror Story Is Dead: Official
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.