‘Don’t You Write Horror Stories?’

Reading & Writing

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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As the chat continued I realised that they were unpublished critics and poets, and frowned on anything popular.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.

11 comments on “‘Don’t You Write Horror Stories?’”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    Horror can be a difficult genre to define. Does a murder define a story as being Horror, when it could just as easily be defined as Crime? Is it a Supernatural element? I have an old St Michael collection of Supernatural stories, but I also have their Horror compendium. A lot of stories in the old Pan collections don’t fall comfortably into common Horror sub genres. I’ve always viewed the film The Wicker Man as being Horror, but I have to warn any younger friends I recommend it to that there are no supernatural elements, no monsters and only one death. The paganism, especially the wearing of masks, is oddly chilling, but would disappoint anyone expecting a burning giant to stride across Summerisle.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    The horrors! I love a good horror story and anyone who can laugh at the likes of MR James, Arthur Machen and Edgar Allan Poe deserves to be fastened to a table with a swinging knife blade pendulum descending on them forever. Dracula itself is an astonishing narrative, especially Jonathan Harker’s diaries.
    Among modern authors I particularly like M John Harrison’s stuff – a semi- Ballardian take on everyday situations.
    Ronald Dahl’s children books are great fun but his adult stuff was woeful, especially his ‘Tales of the Completely Expected After the First Ten Minutes’ TV show.
    Short stories? I love ’em, some good stories don’t deserve to be pulled out too far. On the other hand Chandler wrote lots of great short stories for the pulps and then painstakingly knitted them together to make the greatest detective stories ever.
    The idea of a magazine that was totally dedicated to short and medium stories within a particular genre seems to have all but disappeared by the late 80’s, but they were the places where new authors could cut their teeth – similar to the loss of pub rock and folk venues where bands could find confidence and learn. I remember seeing Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics as a solo folk singer performing in an upstairs room in a pub in Jarrow in the mid 70’s. He improved later.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Sorry – spell checker took over – I know his real name is Ronald Dhol.

  4. Brooke says:

    If you like J. Harker’s journal of his Transylvania adventures, you may enjoy Reconciliation Day by the author of this blog.

  5. Roger says:

    Perhaps you used the wrong terminology, Christopher: “strange stories” might have worked better or you could have put it in French “l’horreur contemporaine [or urbaine]” is the kind of term which immediately gets people thinking of Ph.D.s. Did you remember the names of any of your persecutors to see if they ever actually achieved anything in the future?
    I’m sorry short stories are no longer worth writing. Before WWII it was possible to make a good living out of writing short stories which only appeared in magazines.

  6. Glen day says:

    I think the very scariest story I ever read was a children’s book called “house of stairs” by William aleatory. Nothing supernatural in it. But extremely unsettling. Basically a behavior modification, or brainwashing story. I read it years ago, and it still strikes me as being the scariest, most chilling thing ever.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    A number SF authors used to cobble their short stories together to create what is termed ‘Fix-Up’ novels, Ray Bradbury and A. E. Van Vogt. Outside SF are The Big Sleep by Chandler and even Agatha Christie with the Big Four.

    Maybe you could try this with some of your old stories admin.

    On Kindle/Amazon they sell short stories individually, maybe this could be an idea for any uncollected short stories.

    Wayne.

  8. Bill says:

    The fools who laughed at you now have weeds rising through their hideous bare ribcages. And yet they live. And they writhe with envy for you.

    I know.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    You’d expect Hell Train to be horror and it is but somehow it doesn’t give me cold shudders.
    That book you picture is probably good but I’d like to shoot the person responsible for the title lettering. Nice flourishes, though.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I have no idea why people are so sniffy about ‘Horror’. A well written horror story can be a thing of beauty, that will stay in your mind for years and years. Basil Copper’s ‘Camera Obscura’ is such a tale. It is very possible that the earliest stories man told to fellow man were ‘Horror’ stories – the hunter having his head torn off by a cave bear; the fisherman being pulled off his ice floe by a killer whale; that year when spring did not come, that sort of thing. The oldest known story, the wonderful ‘Epic Of Gilgamesh’ (if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so; it’s short, but you won’t regret it. It’s older than the pyramids, and yet the ideas contained in it still resonate today.), has elements of horror in it – the man called Utnapishtim, who is preparing for the deluge that will end the world, by building a large vessel to put animals in to save them… (see also Deucalion and the flood). A lot of Greek and Roman mythology is based on pain, terror, and suffering, some of which is on ‘Saw’ levels of unpleasantness. Just at random, Procrustes’ Iron Bed. ‘Guests’ of this tyrant were invited to sleep in this bed. However, any bodily parts that extended beyond the ends of the bed… Were sawn off, and anyone too short to reach both ends of the bed… Was stretched to fit. Lovely. There was a gigantic tyrant who amused himself by bending down two pine trees, tying travellers to these trees, an arm and leg to each tree, and letting go of the trees, which tore the victim in half. Ovid describes the violence that occurred when some heavily refreshed Centaurs tried to make off with the bride at a wedding, in loving, Quentin Tarantino fashion. Similarly, the return of Odysseus home, to find a bunch of lecherous freeloaders vying for the favours of Penelope, his wife. Odysseus makes himself known, but is ‘dissed’ by the suitors, and, it all kicks off. No horrendous injury is left undescribed by Homer. Is Classical literature lowbrow? Of course not. Is it, in places horrific? Certainly. Orpheus could have just walked off into the sunset, but no, he’s torn to pieces by enraged women. Zeus, married to the vengeful Hera, just has to chase and rape every beautiful female he sees. Because he can. It’s a horrendous world, indeed. But not viewed as ‘lowbrow’. Shakespeare has horror tropes in his works – to see how horrid they can be, in the wrong hands, watch ‘Theatre Of Blood’ (1973). So, critics, if you don’t think horror is a serious genre, I recommend that you leave it alone, either on the page, or on the screen, and don’t worry about it. It’s as valid as any other form – and often a damn sight more interesting.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Critics seem to feel that a book is only worthy of a serious review if they can’t put a label on it. All labeled books are automatically a lesser breed. “Literature” must be “deep” and tear apart someone’s life and beliefs in the most painful ways possible. It should also involve a tremendous amount of soul searching and motive analysis. Oh and have “meaning” attached to every gesture. I’m feeling a little down on literature just now and am reading in the genres; Arthur C. Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth and Louise Penny’s Glass Houses have as much morality and analysis as I feel any need of just now.

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