Over at the prodigiously talented Christopher Fowler’s blog, he has something to say about the twee-ification of traditional horror monsters, as well as the impact of a certain series of novels about sparkly vampires and puppyesque werewolves. Go over there and read it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you get back before I weigh in with my less eloquent two’pennorth. Here’s the link:-
Has Horror Been Eclipsed?
Are you back? Good. Here’s a rambling and barely coherent post detailing what I think on the matter.
I have no problem whatsoever with books for younger readers falling into the horror categorisation. The late Robert Westall managed to scare me witless more than once, with novels like Urn Burial or The Scarecrows, novellas like The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral and too many of his short stories to list here. Westall wrote almost exclusively for younger readers and his horror work was aimed squarely into that demographic as well. The legendary and greatly missed Pan and Armada books of Horror were staple checkouts on my school library card. Youngsters like to be scared. I was reading Graham Masterton and Stephen King before I ever picked up a Charles Dickens novel (Although The Signalman was one short of his I’d read at a very early stage. Horror anthologies are great for that.), M. R. James before I ever read Shakespeare and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe long before I picked up a John Donne collection. Just when I was hitting the age when teenagers slump into self-absorbed ennui and a sulky insistence that the old guard of any specific artistic movement or genre is irrelevant to them or the modern world (roughly sixteen), I read Fowler’s Spanky and realised that horror never stops evolving, because the things that scare us as a society change over time.
What do the Twilight saga, The Dresden Files, the Anita Blake or Sookie Stackhouse novels, tell us about our current society? They tell us that the old guard are once again, no longer relevant to the current crop of people in their mid-teens, just as writers like King, Herbert, Masterton, Laymon and Koontz (some would argue against his categorisation as horror, I won’t entirely disagree with them) ceased being relevant to me in my teens and twenties. The unavoidable fact is that the things which scared us (born after the sixties spirit had died, but before Thatcherism and Reaganomics were entrenched), simply don’t scare them. They find the fear of isolation and disconnection as silly as those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties found fear of the Outsider, the Mutant, the one who’s Not Like Us. The Cold War was still going on, but the feelings of mutual antagonisation were rapidly cooling and we all knew it. We feared being separated from our society, from our safe little comfort zones, far more than we feared an outsider destroying it. The fears of the generation who became adults under the ever-present threat of The Bomb simply weren’t our own.
To someone who grows up often going for days without meaningful social contact outside of school, because connection doesn’t always occur face to face thanks to mobile phones and instant messenger services, to someone who grew up in the closest thing to a multicultural society history has ever known, a world where novels, music and films from our notional “cultural enemies” are readily accessible and where any sizable town or city has areas almost entirely given over to the culture our enemies supposedly come from, both fears are equally silly. A faint loneliness is an ever-present and The Outsider is just like us, for the most part, because there’s little mystery to another culture if you don’t want there to be one anymore. Our monsters are no more scary to the current younger generation than Faeries were to me. They’re the fear of the generation before last, just like my grandparents and great-grandparents were scared by the folk tales of the Dwarves of the Simonside Hills, Redcaps stalking the Northumberland moors, or the lingering presence of some unspecified evil imprinted on the very brickwork of their house.
Todays teenagers see nothing to fear in the monsters of the generation before last, except a lingering hint of danger. Enough to make it alluring, but not enough to make it terrifying. They toy with vampires, werewolves and the like, as easily as we toyed with the notion of Faeries, Redcaps and Changelings. Writers like Robert Holdstock, Neil Gaiman and Mark Chadbourn almost brought that fear back, but the cultural resonance was gone and they found themselves on the fantasy shelves, rather than the horror where they would have been in the past. That’s where the current paranormal romance/let’s chin a vampire novels will end up in the long run. The horrors of old, become toys for a new generation.
The current fascination with all things zombie perhaps suggests at an undercurrent. A faint ripple on the surface that hints at something lurking underneath. Zombies carry too much cultural baggage to ever become truly scary again, but the reemergence of the traditional symbolism of the post-Romero zombie is maybe an indication of where the future of horror lies. Fear of conformity and faceless consumerism is part of it, just like it was in the sixties and seventies, but something else is buried in there and the zombie doesn’t truly express it, just like the vampires, werewolves and various other traditional monsters didn’t quite express it for us. Our generations had Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell coming into his full bloom as a writer and the emergence of Christopher Fowler to crystallise our fears for us. Monsters old and new wrapped in layers of modern symbolism. The new generation is waiting for someone to crystallise their fears for them, a strident new voice like Barker and Fowler were for us, or one of the generation previous spotting a seam to mine which still holds relevance, just like Ramsey Campbell did in the eighties and early nineties. You won’t find three more different writers, but the thing they all have in common is that they caught the mood of what scared a generation. No-one has done that for this one yet. Sooner or later, there will be another Hellbound Heart or Books of Blood, another The Hungry Moon or The Doll Who Ate its Mother, another Spanky, Disturbia or Psychoville, but until then we’ll all just have to admit that horror is floundering a bit because, as sad as it is to say, no-one has really nailed this generation’s fears so completely that they can bust into the top of the bestseller lists and carry a new generation of horror writers behind them. Until someone can say in all honesty that their tales of terror owe little beyond a basic shared cultural history with those of the previous generation (which is the bracket the authors I’ve stated I admire greatly as the “new direction of horror” in the last two decades of the twentieth century now lie in), this will remain the case. Horror won’t die out, it never does, but it perhaps needs a new voice, or an old voice with a new story to tell to shake it out of its funk.
Of course, everything I’ve written above could just be pontification and hot air. Horror might be just having one of its cyclical slumps, when people are scared enough of the real world that they want some gentle escapism in their written fiction, just like it did from the thirties through to the early seventies thanks to a global depression, a world war and a few near misses when a third one world war almost broke out. It was being written, and written well, in that time, but people just wanted something else right then. Mostly something glossy, as the success of novels like Valley of the Dolls and the like will attest. The more worrying side of that era’s cultural and social development was dealt with primarily in speculative fiction, from writers like Matheson, Wyndham, Bradbury, Ellison and to a lesser extent Heinlein, Niven, Aldiss and Clarke. Stephen King and his contemporaries and imitators (both conscious and otherwise) captured the mixture of disenchantment with the post-war enthusiasm, Cold War posturing and paranoia and the baby-boomer’s fear of what came next at just the right time. Barker, Campbell and Fowler captured the disenchantment with Thatcherism, the cult of self and the fear of isolation at exactly the right time, while riding on the publishing coat tails of mega sellers like King, Koontz, Herbert and, in the early days of the horror boom at least, Masterton, when horror was still very close to the mainstream consciousness. Maybe it’s just a couple of years too soon for the next wave to capture post-millennial angst, disenfranchised consumerism, the terror of sudden and unanticipated poverty and fear of the new era of conformity and conservatism (in a societal sense. Not in the sense of the Conservative Party) we currently live in. Who knows? It would certainly explain the way that for the first time in decades, written SF&F are nearer to the mainstream than horror is, why a trilogy of mystery thrillers dealing with the darker side of consumerism and corporate culture are flying high in the bestseller lists and why sales of celebrity autobiographies have never been higher. A bit of light escapism, or else unease dealt with in a manner that doesn’t seem somehow slightly ridiculous. Horror is still waiting in the wings, ready to step back into the spotlight, just as soon as someone breaks the newly installed glass ceiling and sells a metric fuckload of books, seemingly out of nowhere. Just like Carrie did. Just like The Hellbound Heart did… Just like Twilight did.
Bonus musical clip:-
Just because I feel like being a bit of a facetious dickhead (I know, it shocks me too), here’s some evidence that perhaps making monsters less scary and suitable for kids isn’t an entirely new phenomenon.