‘Don’t You Write Horror Stories?’
I was once at a literary gathering – this was very early on in my career – and rather nervous about being in the company of so many university Eng. Lit. graduates. Back then it was a much rarer privilege to go to university. This particular group of three with whom I was standing talked of books I had not read and rather talked around me, as if I was wearing a badge that said ‘Grammar School Boy’. I suppose I could have one-upped them by pointing out that my school had been founded long before their colleges, but I was a bit intimidated, and wanted to be accepted by them. It’s exciting to trade up, conversationally speaking.
As the chat continued I realised that they were unpublished critics and poets, and frowned on anything popular. I had just had my first collection, ‘City Jitters’, published. The publisher, Sphere, had branded them as ‘Urban Horror’ although of course I’d had no such tag in mind when I wrote them. I was simply writing stories I liked, and had not given a thought to where they lived in the marketplace. So ‘horror’ it was, even though the tales had little in them to frighten anyone (or so I believed).
When I was asked by the others if I had aspirations to get published, I told them I already had a book out.
Incredulity. Faces hardened, jaws set. One of them leaned forward. ‘And what kind of fiction do you write?’
And I said, ‘horror stories’.
My interrogator laughed in my face. I knew the expression but had never seen anyone actually do it before. Then the others laughed. Mortified, I left the group.
The label was pejorative, I realised, but the collections had to be sold and this was the publisher’s best chance of shifting them. The label stayed with me, and sometimes I was persuaded to play up to it.
This year I finally stopped writing short fiction, because it no longer sells in the numbers it once did, largely killed off by electronic publishing. So I was able to look back on a body of work that is now finite. What becomes immediately obvious is how many of the stories cannot be labelled horror at all. They contain elements of something beyond the mundane, that’s all. But the first label always sticks. The label isn’t horror, but genre. Genre is set apart from general fiction, and it’s hardest of all to cross between.
Tomorrow I’ll reprint one of the stories that fall into this category, and you can see what you think. It’s not seen daylight since its solitary outing in an early collection, but it shows why labelling is ultimately misleading.
The book in the photo shows some of the authors gathered inside who can be denigrated for writing ‘horror stories’. It’s an excellent collection. You’d be hard pushed to describe any as horror.