Monday, May 19, 2008

The Decline of Literary Horror

Ever since I started moving near the edge of horror circles, I kept hearing the refrain that the genre was dead (usually made into a joke in which one person accuses another of "You killed the genre!!"). But now finally I've found some detailed reporting of what all that refers to:

The first one's a short version, the second a scholarly article on it.

The short essay argues that it boils down to a phenomenon I have been able to observe on my own: horror literature apes horror films. This often results in atrocious writing, because what's scarier or evocative on film (e.g. graphic violence) isn't necessarily what's scary on the page (where descriptions of graphic violence can often be clinical, detached, sort of blah). So, with blockbuster horror movies in the 70s, horror lit tried to jump on the bandwagon, it got taken over by a bunch of hacks churning out stuff for the higher demand, then a lot of it disappeared.

The longer, more scholarly essay looks at the loss of midlist authors that occurred during the decline, overall economic downturn, and over-exploitation of the genre (including the possibility that horror is not a genre at all, which I've been wondering since I started).

So I guess I'm laboring in a much smaller market, and it's been fine so far, for my meager plans and desires.


Blogger Allen's Brain said...

"what's scarier or evocative on film (e.g. graphic violence) isn't necessarily what's scary on the page"

Lovecraft would be a good example of this. His writing often leaves you chilled and horrified, but when you try to describe it afterward (or put it on film) it utterly fails to be frightening. As someone else has observed, "I defy anyone to tell what any of his stories are about." And yet they abound with good, working horror.

He also transcends genres (is he horror, sci-fi, what?) which may add to the point that there may not actually be a "horror genre."

11:23 AM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Good observations, going in the direction from literature to film. I have been seeing it in the other direction, where aspiring horror writers try to replicate scenes on paper that they've seen on film, with limited success, when they should be focused on what literary horror offers that film doesn't - getting inside characters' heads being the most notable difference, I think.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"horror is not a genre at all"
? Okay, I'll bite. I'm not sure what that's all about. Sounds like an interesting discussion I've been missing.

11:51 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

To call something a "genre" should mean something other than a marketing distinction. A "novel" is a genre distinct from a "play," distinct from an "limerick." If "horror" is just a mood or subject matter, it's not a genre. At least, that would be my reaction to the question that I've heard many times now.

12:32 AM  
Blogger John Goodrich said...

Simmons, is actually incorrect. "Horror" vanished from bookshelves because it became too successful. Barnes and Noble found that people were embarrassed by looking for their King or Rice book in an obscure corner of the bookstore. So it was folded into mainstream literature so King could share a shelf with Borges, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pyncheon, and others.

Anything that is successful enough will be moved out of its genre gutter and into the mainstream. Where do you find Harry Potter at your local book store? Not fantasy, that's for sure.

8:42 AM  

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